Survivor


Buchenwald 3Two Holocaust survivors tell their stories.

Written by Tom Gordon

Portraits by Beau Gustafson

 

Enough volumes have been written about the Holocaust to fill the Library of Congress to overflowing.

They range from Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel’s slim memoir, Night; to Martin Gilbert’s massive historical volume, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War; to a section in National Geographic’s recently published history of World War II. And then there are the written, videotaped, or live accounts you can hear from people like Max Herzel.

Herzel is one of 15 living Birmingham-area Holocaust survivors and one of just 23 in Alabama. He has been telling his story for about 20 years. Unlike many survivors, he was not beaten or tortured and did not have a number engraved on his arm. Nor was he sent to a ghetto or a death camp. His father died after spending time in two of the most notorious Nazi camps, Auschwitz in Poland and Buchenwald in Germany, but Herzel was not on hand to bear witness and did not learn his father’s fate until after the war.

That fact doesn’t make his story any less compelling, in the way an old black-and-white movie that hints at horrors while not graphically displaying them is still powerful today. And telling his story seems to energize the 84-year-old native of Belgium, giving his eyes a purposeful, determined expression that is so often missing in photos of the emaciated faces of other Holocaust survivors, particularly the striped uniform-wearing inmates staring through barbed wire at the Allied troops who came to liberate them. “I’m not looking for pity,” Herzel says, explaining why he has given about 175 talks on his experience, many of them to middle and high school classes. “…I want to prevent further genocides. That’s the purpose of it. I want the world to know what went on, even in a small way. I do make a difference. It’s a spit in the ocean, but I’m glad to do that spit in the ocean.”

While Herzel learned through written correspondence what happened to his father at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, a northwest Alabama country boy named Travis Ray Carter got an up-close-and-personal view of the Holocaust that still haunts him. When Buchenwald, one of the largest in the Nazi network of camps, was liberated in April of 1945, Carter was there as a battle-hardened member of the 512th Military Police Battalion. He said he saw bodies in stacks, lying in open latrines, hanging from hooks in the camp crematorium, and some that were still moving because their owners were still clinging to life. Others were more able-bodied and had seized the camp before even U.S. forces arrived, and Carter said he was more than willing to give them his rifle so they could kill camp guards. “It was the most horrible thing you’ve ever seen,” Carter said. “The smell. It was awful.” The broadcaster Edward R. Murrow also visited Buchenwald and made one of the war’s most memorable audios. “If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio,” Murrow warned his listeners.

Just two years earlier, Carter, one of eight children, was getting ready to graduate from Hamilton High School in Marion County. Shortly after getting his diploma, he would get his draft notice. He did not know a lot about the outside world, because he had only been out of Marion County two or three times, but he was not unfamiliar with privation and sorrow. His family lived a make-do life in a house in worse shape than some nearby barns, and life got tougher after his father died in a sawmill accident in October of 1941.

But what Carter experienced in the war would put that life in a much more favorable light. By the time he got to Buchenwald, he said, he had lost his best friend to a German air raid in Normandy, seen dead Americans piled “like cordwood” in the back of a troop truck, some with their dog tags in their mouths, and helped feed hungry French children. He said he did the same thing with hungry prisoners at Buchenwald, but what he gave them to eat was too rich for them to keep down. Now 90, living in Winfield, and beset by a variety of ailments, Carter said memories of Buchenwald sometimes still keep him from sleeping soundly at night. “It just gets next to me,” he says.

According to information from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Between July 1937 and April 1945, the SS (a special German police force) imprisoned some 250,000 persons from all countries of Europe in Buchenwald. Exact mortality figures for the Buchenwald site can only be estimated, as camp authorities never registered a significant number of the prisoners,” states an article from the museum’s website. “The SS murdered at least 56,000 male prisoners in the Buchenwald camp system, some 11,000 of them Jews.”

Travis Ray Carter

Travis Ray Carter

About two months before Travis Carter and other U.S. soldiers came to Buchenwald, a prisoner there by the name of Oscar Herzel died from a combination of maladies, among them malnutrition and dysentery. He had been among thousands forcibly marched and transported there from Auschwitz and other camps earlier in the year. In his memoir, Elie Wiesel writes that he and his father Schlomo had been part of that forced movement, and that Schlomo Wiesel also died at Buchenwald. Max Herzel was one of Oscar Herzel’s two sons, and in February of 1945, he had no idea of his father’s whereabouts. He himself was 15, living under a false name, attending school, and living with a farm family in the French Alps. His older brother, Harry, was in the French underground and his mother, Nachama, had been in a psychiatric hospital in central France.

Life had seemed simpler and safer 10 years before. Oscar and Nachama Herzel, both Polish-born, had settled in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Oscar was a diamond cutter, while Nachama was a skilled seamstress. One of Max’s strongest memories is depicted in a painting as part of the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center’s Darkness into Life exhibit, produced some years back on 20 local Holocaust survivors. It shows a late night scene at his mother’s dress shop, and she is fashioning an item of clothing at her sewing machine as he, his father, and brother sit or stand nearby. The tranquility represented by the scene would be destroyed by Hitler’s war. On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium, and the Herzels spent seven days in a crowded car on a crowded train before ending up in central France.

That was only the beginning of a journey that ultimately saw the Herzel family scattered, never again to be fully reunited. “To be a refugee—and I hope that none of you will experience that—you need to go by boat, by wagon, by truck. You do whatever you can…to find refuge,” Herzel said during a late-summer presentation at the Prattville Lions Club. “And unfortunately, the world is still experiencing this right now.”

In France, the Herzels spent time in one camp, which burned, and then another, from which, through the use of bribes and other means, they managed to escape. They lived for a while in a village, where Oscar Herzel hid part of the time in a patch of woods and his wife and sons all lived in separate domiciles. A Madame Decoux, the widow of a French soldier slain in World War I, was their chief protector. After Oscar and Harry were picked up by French authorities and sent to a work camp, Max and his mother traveled by train to ask a rabbi if he could help obtain their release. It was during that visit that his mother jumped in a river, screaming. “She was so distraught; it was terrible,” Herzel said in his Prattville talk.

As things turned out, Harry and Oscar were released, but their freedom did not unify the family. Oscar headed to what he thought would be safety across the border in Italy. Harry joined the maquis, rural fighters who were part of the French resistance. Nachama spent the rest of the war in a psychiatric hospital, where her therapy included time at a sewing machine. Max came under the protection efforts of Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), a Jewish group that, with some Protestant and Catholic help, organized to save children like himself. As a result, he lived in several orphanages before ending up with the Feriaud family in the hamlet of Sironne, about 60 miles south of Grenoble. “I felt very well protected by these people,” Herzel said. “I was well taken care of. Plenty of food, plenty of work.” Florian Feriaud, the head of his foster family, told him, “Young man, when it rains, you go to school. When the sun is shining, we go to work in the fields.” Herzel said he never felt fear and never even saw a German soldier, except for some he saw at a distance while visiting a larger town. In late 1944, however, he got close enough to some American soldiers to do some trading—eggs for chewing gum—and even tried some of their cigarettes. “Camels sure tasted good,” he says.

After the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, he was reunited with his mother and his brother, but had no word about the fate of his father. Months later, in a barely legible document from the International Red Cross, they got the official word of Oscar’s death. Three years later, Max and Harry emigrated to the U.S. Their mother wouldn’t get there for another five years. By then, Max had completed two years out of the four he was to serve in the U.S. Air Force. Marriage to his wife, Cecille, would come in 1955, and that union would produce two children, Elliot and Caryl; the family moved to Birmingham in 1972.

When he retired from his job as assistant to the chief of staff at the VA Medical Center about 20 years later, Herzel decided it was time to tell his story to as many audiences as he could. “I was, you know, thinking about it,” Herzel says, “…but once I retired, I said, ‘This is what I’m here for.’”

Given the scale of the Holocaust, one cannot help but think that most of those who died would have contributed something good to the world if they had been able to live. Their deaths meant countless books not written, countless songs not composed, countless paintings not painted, diamonds not cut, dresses not sewn, life-saving vaccines not discovered, and devices not invented that would have improved the quality of human life. That reflection leads to other questions that many Holocaust survivors themselves have asked and keep asking: Where were you, God? We were faithful to you, and this is the thanks we get? What good could possibly come from a horror like this?

Max Herzel

Max Herzel

Herzel is still asking those questions. He plans on posing them directly to God if he gets the chance. “We’re going to have a good session,” Herzel says. “I hope it’s not sacrilegious. But it shouldn’t be. Dialogue is a two-way street, isn’t it?” Of course, if God is all-knowing, then he already knows that Herzel is not nearly as religious as he once was before the war and the tragic consequences it brought to his family. That he, in his own words, is “a little pissed.” Pissed that an all-powerful deity whose Biblical exploits include splitting the Red Sea to save the Israelites from Pharoah’s forces and giving manna to them during their 40 years of wandering in the desert could not perform a similar miracle to save his father, his other family members, millions of their fellow Jews, and the hundreds of thousands of other Holocaust victims. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “It (faith) has never returned to the point that it was. Never. Now, when I wake up in the morning and see the sun shining, and I see the flowers in the backyard and whatever, I believe there must be a God somewhere, but I’m mad at him, him or her or whatever. I’m mad at him for allowing [the Holocaust] to happen.”

On the flip side, Herzel said he can’t help but feel some gratitude to God for his post-war life with a wife, two children, a good job, and the ability to stay healthy and active. And as long as he remains healthy, he will continue to speak out about the Holocaust. “It’s something in me that’s driving it,” he says. “I feel a very strong urge to speak out and as the [Holocaust] deniers out there in the world are spewing their hatred and all that, the more I hear them, the stronger I am in that cause. Does that make sense to you? Religious persons would say this is what God wanted me to do. I’m not going to go that far, but I had that urge in me.”

As he acts on that urge to speak, two words he never says are, “Never again.”

“I don’t say it because since the Holocaust, we’ve had how many genocides—gosh, six, seven whatever it is,” Herzel says. “The answer to the problem is to educate the world to know that hatred is the beginning of something that grows and grows and, like Elie Wiesel said, it’s nothing but a cancer. And I tell those kids, I say, ‘Kids, you gotta love each other. You may not like it, but you’ve got to love each other; you’ve got to respect each other, you know.’”

Herzel has two more talks scheduled in the months ahead. By then, he may have some more information to include in them. Though he says it drives his bride crazy, he is searching constantly, even desperately, for whatever he can learn about the final months in his father’s life—the circumstances of his arrest, any details on the remaining months of his life, where he might be buried. He is trying to learn more about seven of his father’s eight siblings and their family members who were living in Poland when the war broke out, have not been heard from since, and are presumed to have been murdered. He is also trying to find what he can about slain members of his mother’s family, including two of her brothers and their families, who were deported from Belgium to Auschwitz. “I’m working on that so desperately, but it’s tough,” Herzel said. “Little by little, information is coming up because the Russians are releasing it, but it’s all so sketchy. There are more and more people…going to those parts of the world and doing research, and so maybe I’ll crack it.

“Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.”

The Holocaust, which took place from 1939–1945, was the largest genocide in human history. During that time, more than 6 million Jews were systematically murdered by the German Nazis and their collaborators, who believed that Germans were racially superior and that the Jews were a threat to the German racial community. Some scholars place the death toll at more than 11 million, citing that some 5 million non-Jews were also killed. The Holocaust ended with Germany’s formal surrender in World War II on May 8, 1945. (Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ushmm.org.)

 

In an exclusive video interview, B-Metro asks Max Herzel Why do you, at this time in your life, continue to give talks about the Holocaust and what happened to your family?

Click here to view the interview.

One Response to “Survivor”

  1. I am writing a book on WWII of captions and images based on my father Curtis Whiteway and his war experiences. He has 3 images sent to him by Max Herzel (sent on May 1995). I am looking for permission to use them in the book. Is Max still around? Is there a way to contact him? Thank you! Doreen Chambers, 1944 Hebert Road, Williamstown, Vermont 05679

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