“Heroes need monsters to establish their heroic credentials. You need something scary to overcome.” -Margaret Atwood, Canadian Author
by Alan Simons
Last November, in JewishinfoNews, I wrote an article that said: “Unlike our family and friends in many other countries, we Jews in Canada have very little to no knowledge of the part our own Jewish military veterans contributed to our country. To my mind, as a society, we have failed miserably in this task of honouring and remembering our heroes. Take for example the respect Jewish military veterans have in the U.S. and in the U.K… both of these countries have active Jewish military organisations that are enthusiastically and proudly supported by their diaspora. But not in Canada.”
This past December, Canada’s Jewish community lost another one of its heroes. Captain Martin Maxwell, the last of the two known surviving British Jewish wartime glider pilots. It took Jewish miltary historian Martin Sugarman, who has worked extensively with the archives of the Jewish Military Museum and AJEX, the Jewish Military Association in the UK, to write Maxwell’s obituary. It appeared two weeks ago in The Jewish Chronicle (UK).
Over the years, I met Martin Maxwell on many occasions here in Toronto, mostly connected to meetings I attended at the Jewish War Veterans of Canada (Toronto Post). He was, as the positive saying goes, “quite a character!”
Below, I have taken the liberty of republishing in its entirety, his obit, written by Martin Sugerman in the January 15 edition of The Jewish Chronicle.
Captain Martin Maxwell
Last of the two known surviving British Jewish wartime glider pilots
He was just 15 when he and his brother left Vienna for England in 1938 on the Kindertransport, having lost both parents. Martin Maxwell, who was adopted by the Webber family in Manchester, reflected: “Had it not been for a letter my brother had received from a sympathetic Nazi officer, I was almost certainly destined for a concentration camp”. Both had witnessed Kristallnacht in Vienna as boys.
His three sisters were sent to Paris in 1939. Only the youngest survived the war, having been taken in by a Christian family. The two elder girls perished in the camps.
Maxwell, who has died aged 97, could barely wait to fight for the liberation of Europe, and In 1941, aged 18, he joined the British army. As an “alien” he was placed into the Pioneer Corps and was finally transferred to the Tank Regiment. He then volunteered for special forces in the Army Air Corps as a glider pilot. After intense training, including parachute jumps, Maxwell earned his red beret as an airborne regiment glider pilot and was involved in the D Day landings on June 6 1944; he was just 21 years old.
Born Max Meisels, he was advised to change his name in case he was captured. Being Austrian and Jewish, it would have been a death warrant had his real name been used. His glider airborne troops landed the night before the main landings and helped capture the bridges over the River Orne at the east end of the invasion beaches, to protect the landing’s left flank near Ouisterham from Nazi counter attacks.
The glider pilots were ordered back to fight their way to the beaches to return to England in case a second wave was needed, but in fact they were not used till September, 1944 at Arnhem. Again Maxwell joined the Airborne at the battle for the famous “Bridge too Far”(Operation Market-Garden). After several days of fighting his unit were out of food and ammunition and surrounded, and he was asked to leave the trenches they had dug and go and find out the enemy’s intentions, using his German. But a shell-burst threw him against a tree, leaving him with a broken right hand and leg. Semi-conscious, he was aware of two paras giving him water and binding his wounds. Soon an armistice was called and he was stretchered away as a prisoner. He recalled with horror the sight of Dutch civilians who had helped the British with food and water, hanging from telephone wires where the Nazis had executed them.
Martin’s hand never properly healed. He was taken to Appeldorn by SS Troops and that night he overheard two SS officers speaking. One said that they would “kill all these bastards tonight” but the other replied that would be stupid, as the Allies would soon be in Berlin and they would be hunted as war criminals. So Maxwell was taken by train to Fallingbostel POW camp near Hanover, and survived.
After liberation, Maxwell was Commissioned and assigned to Washington DC to assist as a German speaker in war crimes investigations. He left the army in 1946 with the rank of Captain, married Eleonor Posen and set up a successful health products business in Toronto which he operated until the age of 95. In his spare time he gave talks about his escape from the Holocaust, remembering the sacrifices made, fighting antisemitism and his war service, to schools, colleges and military bases all over North America and Europe. He was involved in numerous community organisations, including B’nai B’rith and Jewish War Veterans of Canada. He remained in touch with the English Webber family until they passed away.
Maxwell was the last of two known surviving British Jewish glider pilots of the Second World War. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Legion of Honour from France, in 1960. He is survived by his wife Eleonor, his sons Randy and Brian, daughters in law Vivian and Wendy, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
MARTIN SUGARMAN (AJEX Archivist)
Martin Sugarman is the author of Fighting Back. British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War, published by Vallentine Mitchell, London, 2010 ISBN: 978-0853039006
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