As darkness fell each night in Antwerp, Belgium, young Max Herzel’s mother closed her dress shop where she spent the day taking orders for her custom-made clothing. Due to her reputation as an expert seamstress, there were many orders to fill.
“My father was a diamond cutter,” Max recalls. “After work, he picked me up from school, and we joined my mother and older brother at the dress shop. As she sewed, we cut threads and did whatever we could to help. Many evenings we worked until midnight. We were tired, but we were together. I can still hear the hum of the sewing machine and see the glow of the light over Mother’s shoulder. It was comforting to be surrounded by my family.”
Max’s world was peaceful and untouched by antisemitism until Belgium was invaded by Germany on May 10, 1940.
“We were forced to flee to Brussels and had no idea we would never return to our home. My mother was hidden in a hospital during the war and managed to keep a few of our things with her. One of those was a black suit she had sewn for me. I was wearing that suit when we left Antwerp. I still have it today.”
For centuries, the Star of David has been a symbol of Jewish pride. But during World War II, Nazis used the star to segregate and terrorize the Jewish people.
Max Herzel recalls the period when Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David outlined in black. “Juif,” the French word for “Jew,” was written inside the star.
“The German government’s policy of forcing Jews to wear a badge was a tactic aimed at isolating us from the rest of the population,” he says. “It enabled the German government to identify, deprive, starve, and ultimately murder Jewish people.”
Inside concentration camps, triangular patches were used to identify prisoners. The patches included:
Jew – yellow
Gypsy – brown
Homosexual – pink
Asocial – black
Political prisoner – red
The Asocial category was the most diverse, including prostitutes, vagrants, murderers, thieves, lesbians, and those who violated laws prohibiting sexual intercourse between Aryans and Jews. The word “Blod” on a black triangle marked mentally retarded inmates. For Jewish offenders, triangles of two different colors were combined to create a six-pointed star, one triangle yellow to denote a Jew, the second triangle another color to denote the added offense.
“Max, come into the office. You’re leaving immediately to see your sick grandmother.”
Max Herzel became uneasy when he heard those words.
“My grandmother wasn’t alive, but I had the feeling I shouldn’t dispute what was being said,” he recalls. “The next day, I left the fourth orphanage I had lived in since I was separated from my family. On my way to the bus terminal, I accepted a bike ride from a Frenchman. As I rode on the crossbar, we talked, and all was well until I glanced down and saw his boots – boots similar to those worn by German soldiers.”
Max was panic stricken.
“Questions ran through my mind: What was this young man doing here and not fighting in the war? Could he be my enemy? Was I a captive, my freedom over? All I could do was sit and wait as the boots pedaled us to a destination unknown.”
After a brief ride, Max was dropped off at the bus terminal. “I was so relieved when I was met by a social worker who worked for an underground organization.”
During World War II, Jewish and non-Jewish organizations hid 10,000-12,000 children, at first in groups, then individually. Approximately 50,000 other children were hidden alone or with their parents.
“The social worker took me to the French Alps and introduced me to a farmer. My true identity was concealed and I posed as a Catholic orphan, working on his farm until the end of the war.”
Even though the punishment would be death, many Gentiles saved Jews during the Holocaust. They were people who decided to make a difference because it was the right thing to do.
Young Maz Herzel and his family were aided during and after the war by Mrs. Decoux, a wealthy, Parisian Gentile. When Max’s father, Oscar, could no longer hide in her basement, Mrs. Decoux helped him hide in the forest and brought him food until he was captured while attempting to escape to the Italian zone. During this time, Max was placed in several orphanages and was later hidden in the French Alps. His brother, Harry, joined the French Underground. His mother, who had become seriously ill, was aided by Dr. Pierre Doussinet, a gentile physician.
“My father wrote this letter to Madame Decoux,” Max says of the letter translated below. “It was censored, as you can see by the censorship stamp, but we’ve never been able to determine exactly where he was. He died in Buchenwald approximately three months before the end of the war. He was 44 years old.”
February 19, 1944
Dear Mrs. Decoux,
I am writing you a few words
from Italy. I’m able to tell you
that I’m in good health. I’m
also hoping the same by you
and by Mrs. Churbard. I don’t
know exactly where my wife
is at the present time, also
Harry and Max. Be kind and
transmit this letter. Do not
worry about me. I have much
hope we will see each other
soon. I’m positive that with
my friend Mazaloigne and the
rest of my friends everything
is well. Wishing everyone
well. From a friend who is
thinking often of you.
“In October 1944, I was in the French Alps tending a flock of sheep. I watched the convoy of trucks with white stars on their sides make their way through the valley. I could hear bells ringing as the American trucks entered the village of Sironne, France.
“I lived with the Feriaud Family, posing as a Catholic orphan and helped tend their farm. I worked hard and was treated well. I never felt I was a captive, but I was always careful never to reveal my true identity. I worried constantly about my family.
“A social worker with the Children’s Aid Society took me away from the farm.
“I was 14 years old.”
In 1979, Max Herzel became a member of the Lions Club International, the world’s largest service organization, recognized for its service to the blind and visually impaired.
Today, Max remains actively involved as a Lion and is District Governor of Alabama District 34-O. He was recently name a Melvin Jones Fellow, the Lions’ highest form of recognition for an individual’s dedication to humanitarian service in his community and in the world community.
“I especially enjoy being a part of our project to recycle used eyeglasses,” says Max who helps collect glasses and delivers them to the recycling center to be sorted and sent on vision missions to Latin America.
The many pairs of glasses surrounding Max each day are a fraction of those that were stripped from Jews entering concentration camps and sent to “Aryan” Germans.
First Lady Laura Bush, in a talk at the 10th Anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., recalled seeing a mountain of such glasses.
What moved me the most
were the thousands of
eyeglasses, their lenses still
smudged with tears and dirt.
It struck me how vulnerable
we are as humans, how
many needed those glasses
to see, and how many
people living around the
camps and around the world
refused to see. We see
today, we know what
happened, and we will never