Max Herzel was born in 1930, the son of Oscar, a diamond cutter, and Nachama, a seamstress. Ten-year-old Max’s journey through one of history’s darkest periods began when Belgium was invaded by the Germans on May 10, 1940. After traveling seven days and nights in a crowded boxcar, Max, his parents, and older brother, Harry, found refuge in Southern France.
Soon after, France was invaded by Germany, and the Herzels were moved to the internment camp of Agde in southern France. When Adge burned down, they were transported to Rivesaltes, a pipeline to the concentration camps.
Determined to arrange for his family’s escape, Oscar used bribery to flee to Marseilles. Oscar and Harry were ultimately caught by the French police and were sent to a work camp. Upon their release, Harry joined the French Underground and Oscar went into hiding. Max’s mother, overwhelmed by the trauma, attempted suicide. She was placed in a psychiatric hospital where she remained for the duration of the war.
All alone, young Max was sent to a series of four orphanages. When these became too dangerous, an underground Jewish agency, OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) place him on a remote farm in Sironne in the French Alps. Posing as a Catholic orphan, he worked for his food and lodging. After the Allies regained France in 1944, all the hidden children were gathered by the OSE in an effort to reunite them with their families.
Max’s father had escaped to Italy, but was captured and taken to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald where he died at the age of forty-four, just six weeks short of liberation. Also lost were Oscar’s family of seven siblings and their children, as well as thirteen of Max’s mother’s family.
Max and his brother immigrated to the United State in 1948 and settled in New York. His mother arrived five years later. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force, married Cecille Herman in 1955, and had two children.
Job opportunities brought Max to Birmingham where he was an executive with the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Birmingham and a past Lions Clubs District Governor. Max is an active member of the Alabama Holocaust Commission and the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.