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Survivor shares Holocaust story
Nadega Soubassis looks at Holocaust-era photos on display in the Husband Auditorium lobby Tuesday (Air Force photo/Chris Baldwin).
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Survivor shares Holocaust story

Posted 5/13/2011   Updated 5/13/2011 Email story   Print story


by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

5/13/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala -- 
Max Herzel said he feels strongly about speaking to the public, especially children, about the Holocaust. "I feel a responsibility to educate the public and children about the lives that perished during that time."

He said he believes it is imperative to maintain the evidence of the Nazi atrocities in order to prevent them from happening again.

Mr. Herzel was the keynote speaker during the 42nd Air Base Wing's Days of Remembrance ceremony Tuesday. The observance included a traveling display and reception after the speech. The Maxwell-Gunter Officers Spouses' Club provided refreshments.

This year's theme was "Justice and Accountability in the Face of Genocide: What Have We Learned."

"Though accountability is necessary in the aftermath of genocide, early intervention is vital to saving lives," he said.

May 10, 1940

Tuesday was the 71st anniversary of the day that changed Mr. Herzel's life. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium. He was 10 years old.

"I remember the planes in the sky," he said. "The radio said the attack would be repelled, Germany would be defeated."

The attack was on a Friday, and Mr. Herzel's father observed the Sabbath. Saturday night, Mr. Herzel, his parents and older brother left Antwerp for Brussels to seek shelter with family. They thought they would return home soon and packed just a few items.

Their trip was long, and their stay in Brussels was short. Soon after arriving, "we learned on the radio that German troops broke through and were on their way to occupying Belgium," he said.

Though the Belgians originally believed they would be safe, the Blitzkrieg and Panzer tanks were too strong. "(The Germans) had no problem going around the fortifications," he said.

The Herzels again found themselves on a train, though this one was more like a cattle car. "All I can remember is straw on the floor, two buckets in the corners," he said. For seven days they traveled, unsure of their destination.

Life in France

As the family settled into life in southern France, the Germans moved west. "The Blitzkrieg took the Allies by surprise, and France fell in six weeks," he said. The Germans divided France into two regions: occupied northern France and Vichy "free" France in the south.

The Vichy regime followed policies similar to the Nuremberg laws to track and restrict the Jews. Unlike other areas, Jews there did not have to wear the yellow star. "I never wore the Star of David," he said.

In October the Herzels were told to report to a new residence. They went willingly, not knowing the consequences. They arrived at Adge, an old army camp with wooden barracks, tin roofs and barbed wire. The guards segregated the men and the women, and for the first time, the Herzels were separated.

A fire in January 1941 destroyed the camp. "Let me tell you, it was the most beautiful bon fire you've ever seen," he said. The Herzels were in one of the first groups transported to Rivesaltes, which became a pipeline to the concentration camps. Conditions were inhumane. "We slept on the floor," he remembered. The camp had no water, and limited amounts were driven in by truck. The people were cold. "In that part of France, the winters were beastly cold," he said.

Men were placed in labor battalions and forced to unload coal and build wire fences. Mr. Herzel's father learned of the underground movement and arranged an escape.
The family ended up in a farming community, where they thought they were safe. "We did not anticipate any problems at all," he said.

After the Allies invaded North Africa in 1942, the Germans moved to occupy Vichy France.

On the move

The family was separated again. Mr. Herzel's father and brother were sent to work in concentration camps, and Mr. Herzel remained with his mother.

She sought help from her rabbi. Though Mr. Herzel has no idea what transpired, the outcome was grave. After leaving the rabbi's office, she tried to commit suicide.
She spent the remainder of the war in a psychiatric hospital, protected by the staff.

"My mom never saw a German soldier," he said.

The Jewish community protected Mr. Herzel as he moved from home to home around France. He was given a new identity and religion. "They taught us about the Catholic religion," he said.

He was eventually placed on a farm. "Food was plentiful, but so was the work," he said. The people were kind and even arranged for his education.

Liberation and immigration

He was so isolated, he knew nothing of current events or D-Day. One morning he heard the roar of planes and tanks. "We didn't know who it was," he said. "That's the first experience I had with American troops."

Though he spoke no English and they spoke no French, Mr. Herzel found ways to communicate with the Americans. "We exchanged chewing gum for eggs," he said.

He later learned his brother had left the concentration camp and joined the French liberation movement. His father was not as fortunate. He was sent to Auschwitz and was one of 60,000 prisoners on a death march to Germany. He died in Buchenwald 93 days before liberation.

Mr. Herzel, his brother and his mother immigrated to America. He served four years in the Air Force, married and had two children.

"We rose from the ashes of the tragedy and have a new life in the United States," he said.

Part of that new life involves telling people his history.

"The Holocaust issue is not a Jewish problem, it's a human problem," he said. This is why the Maxwell-Gunter observance committee brought Mr. Herzel and the traveling display to the community.

Dr. Robert Kane, committee member and director of history for Air University, said the pain of the Holocaust and genocide survives in the stories of the survivors, including those affected by more recent atrocities in Bosnia, Albania, Rwanda and the Darfur region of the Sudan.

History provides important lessons for the future.

"During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant clergyman, became involved in the anti-Hitler conspiracy and was executed on Aug. 19, 1944, after the failed July 20, 1944, bomb plot," Dr. Kane said. "He left the world a thought-provoking and relevant legacy before he was executed: 'First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.' That's why we should remember."

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