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Retired British pilot speaks of war

Cheryl Browne

By Cheryl Browne, Barrie Examiner

British Royal Army Air Division pilot, ret. Capt. Martin Maxwell spoke at Collier United Church on Sunday about his experiences growing up Jewish in Germany and his escape to England where he joined the fight against the Nazis. PHOTO: CHERYLBROWNE/BARRIEEXAMINER

British Royal Army Air Division pilot, ret. Capt. Martin Maxwell spoke at Collier United Church on Sunday about his experiences growing up Jewish in Germany and his escape to England where he joined the fight against the Nazis. PHOTO: CHERYLBROWNE/BARRIEEXAMINER

A walk through retired Cpt. Martin Maxwell’s childhood is like a stepping stone game through hell.

At 92, Maxwell is weathered and thin. When he first began speaking at Collier United Church on Sunday, his posture seemed tired, but perhaps it had something to do with the weight of the dozen medals on his jacket.

As he spoke, the tiny microphone picked up his slight Austrian accent, yet his words were clear, too clear at times, when the audience of 50 might well have wished they weren’t bearing witness to the atrocities of the Second World War.

In 2014, at the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Maxwell remembered the 10,000 veterans who had attended the 60th anniversary, and the 1,500 who made it to the 65th in 2009.

“This time, there were just 70 of us,” Maxwell said. In his address, he said, “There aren’t many of us left, so I’m handing you over the torch of freedom , from my generation to yours. Hold it high, so others can see how precious freedom is. And if you ever have to fight for it, do it with everything you have. Because once it is lost, it’s almost impossible to get back.”

His story at Collier began when his family moved to Austria in 1930 when he was about eight. He spoke of his first friend Ricky, who feared Jews, but accepted him because of his soccer prowess.

With his father dying of cancer, Maxwell talked of being so poor, he remembers selling drinks of cold water out of two buckets he’d carried into town, so he could bring home bread from a kindly baker for his three younger sisters.

He remembers the turmoil as Hitler came to Austria in 1938. He spoke of Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass, so named because every business and synagogue was destroyed by soldiers and fire, and hundreds of Jewish people were killed.

Through fate or fancy, Maxwell survived starvation, beatings and orphanages to make it out of Austria.

He spoke of how he and his brother were about to be sent to the concentration camp trains when a letter stating his brother – who had performed a good service for a German officer by scrubbing mud off his shoes – was ‘not an enemy of the state’, which meant the young boys were allowed to leave through a side door, a fate few Jews were granted.

“So we were fortunate. All of Europe knew about this. Did anyone do anything? Yes, there was a Christian organization in England called the Quakers. And they, with the help of Mr. Winston Churchill, managed to pass a law in Parliament saying they would grant asylum to 10,000 children from Germany and Austria. Sixty-nine percent of those 10,000 children never saw their parents again,” he said.

Maxwell was adopted by a woman volunteering with the Quakers, and was well-loved in a family that treasured him.

That would have been a kind end to a terrible tale, yet as Maxwell lived through the Germans bombing British civilians day and night, he decided to join the army and fight back.

Chosen as one of four from 400, Maxwell joined the Royal Army Air Division and became a glider pilot.

He was captured behind enemy lines after leaving a trench minutes before it was bombed and all souls were lost.

He didn’t speak of his time in the concentration camp, but told about the Russian camp near his.

“One big German said every day I’m going to get myself a Russian. What did he mean? Every day he would set his dogs, big German shepherd dogs onto a Russian prisoner and it actually tore him to pieces. Now one day the Russians decided to fight back. They took a piece of wood and made a knife and killed a dog. What did the Germans do? They picked 50 Russians and executed them on the spot,” he said.

When he was liberated, he sold his watch for a jeep and six cans of gas. He and a friend travelled around until they came upon a field.

“We came to this place, worst sight I’ve ever seen. Dozens of children were lying dead and dying and the wild dogs were eating them. We pushed the horn on our jeep and the dogs ran away. A little girl came over, put her hands around my friend’s thigh and said, ‘Poppa, Poppa’. A woman came and said, ‘I have 250 children, we have no food or water. This little girl, Anna, must have come from a Polish army (family) and she thinks any man in uniform is her father’.”

Maxwell promised to return the next day with food and water. On the way back to camp, he sold four cigarettes for a little doll for Anna and returned the next day.

“I had this little doll in my hand and the woman came out, and we said we want to see little Anna, and the woman said ‘little Anna died in the night and her last words were poppa, poppa’.

“So two tough soldiers sat in the jeep and cried for all little Annas of the war.”

Silence echoed through the church on Sunday as Maxwell finished.

He said he found one of his sisters, Berta, had survived and lived in Canada, and his brother lived in Detroit. Maxwell moved to Canada in 1952.

As a respected member of the military and a Jewish man, he was invited to investigate war crimes at the Nurenburg War Tribunals and married his wife, Eleanor, at the age of 42. They’ve now been married 50 years.

A member of Collier United Church, Dr. Ken Hedges, wrote a thank-you letter to Maxwell.

“You have stirred our collective memory,” Hedges wrote. “In a word, your life displays a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil and brutality. Yours, Martin, is a spirit of exemplary courage and purpose and determination.”

Maxwell was presented with the Canadian flag that has flown over Collier United Church since Her Royal Highness Princess Anne visited in 2013.

 

CBrowne@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/cherylbrowne1

British Royal Army Air Division pilot, ret. Capt. Martin Maxwell spoke at Collier United Church on Sunday about his experiences growing up Jewish in Germany and his escape to England where he joined the fight against the Nazis. PHOTO: CHERYLBROWNE/BARRIEEXAMINER

 



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