August 22, 2013
Rumors circulated through Amsterdam’s Jewish community that married men were exempt from labor camp duty. Max Stodel — then known as Mozes or Mauritz — submitted the paperwork necessary to marry his fiancée, Jeannette van Praag. But during the mandatory two-week waiting period, he received orders to report on April 1, 1942, the day of the wedding. Max appealed to the German authorities. He and Jeannette married as planned in a civil ceremony at City Hall, with Jeannette’s aunt and Max’s brother-in-law serving as witnesses. There was no celebration. The next morning, on April 2 at 7:10 a.m., Max, as ordered by the Germans, boarded a train headed to Kremboong, a labor camp in the northern Netherlands. He was not quite 19 years old.
Max Stodel was born April 12, 1923, in Amsterdam, the youngest of Betje and Izak Stodel’s seven children.
Before the war, Max’s father worked in a slaughterhouse, curing animal hides with chemicals to make leather. It was low-paying and unstable employment, and the family was poor, living in a modest two-bedroom apartment with six children sharing one bedroom and one sleeping on the couch. Max remembers Shabbat dinners every Friday night.
Growing up, Max lived for soccer and played center half on his Jewish school’s team, as well as, later, on a city team. He was always the captain. He also attended a Talmud Torah school, but his family needed money, and in 1937, when he was 14 and eligible for a work permit, Max found a job as a presser at a men’s clothing company, working eight hours a day, six days a week.
Then, two years later, Max’s mother, who had been ill, died. “I mourned her for a year,” he said.
On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, and the Dutch surrendered just five days afterward. Max continued to work, as Germany’s anti-Jewish measures slowly took effect. Sometime in 1941, Max said, the Germans began picking up Jews off the streets, and life became more treacherous. Max still worked, but, he said, “My father didn’t allow me to show my face in the city for luxury.”
When he arrived at Kremboong, Max was one of about 80 prisoners. He dug trenches eight hours a day in nearby farmland, a 20-minute walk. The food was sparse, but the prisoners could buy bread from local farmers.
Then, in July 1942, the Kremboong prisoners were marched an hour or more to Westerbork, a transit camp controlled by the Germans. Max was selected to oversee a group of about 12 men assigned to dig trenches eight hours a day to create the foundation of a morgue. Camp officials, impressed with Max’s strength and leadership ability, exempted him from deportation to Auschwitz and other death camps — trains leaving Westerbork were carrying carloads of Jews once each week.
Max’s wife, father and aunt were also sent to Westerbork, and on Nov. 16, 1942, with Max’s work finished, they were all transported by train to a camp in Annaberg, Germany, and immediately were separated. “That was the last time I saw my father and aunt and first wife,” Max said. After the war, he learned they had been killed at Auschwitz three days later.
Max was taken to another transit camp in Bissingen, Germany, and then, on Dec. 4, 1942, to Blechhammer, a complex that included forced labor camps, prisoner of war camps and chemical factories. Max was assigned to oversee a crew that used a four-wheel cart to transport iron pipes and other building materials to various construction sites. He worked the daytime shift, with a half-day off every other Sunday.
At Blechhammer, he befriended a group of Dutch POWs, who brought him the Dutch newspaper. They also provided cement sacks on which Max secretly wrote notes to his wife’s sister and her non-Jewish husband in Holland. They sent back 100 guilders, enabling Max to buy items from other POWs, including bread and a tin of dog fat.
One day, returning to camp from work, with the guilders tucked in the waistband of his pants, Max was stopped for inspection. Max tossed the money on the ground, but a German soldier saw him and slapped Max across the face 25 times and pocketed the money.
Another day, Max came upon a truck delivering bread. He stole a loaf and ran. But a German soldier stopped him, ordered him to drop his pants and gave him 25 lashings with a whip.
On Jan. 21, 1945, Blechhammer was evacuated, with approximately 4,000 prisoners taken on a death march. “We walked for two weeks,” said Max, who had one blanket to fend against the bitter cold, no socks and shoes with wooden soles. The prisoners slept in haystacks at night.
Max walked with two friends. They took turns entering houses en route and stealing bread. When Max’s turn came, he stole a pot of potatoes cooking on a stove, sticking the pot under his blanket. A Hitler Youth member saw the steam rising from under Max’s blanket and took out his revolver. “Don’t shoot,” German civilians shouted at the boy, who put down his gun.
On Feb. 2, the prisoners reached Gross-Rosen, minus 800 killed by SS soldiers on the march. Max was so exhausted he couldn’t move. “You cannot imagine what we went through,” he said.
After a short stay at Gross-Rosen, Max and the other prisoners were put in open cattle cars, with bombs falling around them, and taken to Buchenwald.
Outside his barracks in Buchenwald, Max saw hundreds of bodies piled up, some stacks five bodies high. “They couldn’t bury them fast enough,” he said.
The prisoners were transferred to Klein Mangersdorf and then loaded on a cattle car to Dachau, where they waited six hours for an engine. Next they were taken to Salach, a village in southern Germany, where they remained in the cars. One night they were brought individual Red Cross packages. “There were chocolates, cigarettes, you name it,” Max said.
The next evening the prisoners were let out of the train to get water. A German soldier said to Max, “We’re taking you to the Americans.” Max reported the conversation to the prisoners in his car, who started to pray.
The next day, American soldiers liberated the prisoners and rounded up the 50 or so German guards. It was April 30, 1945. Max had recently turned 22.
He returned to Amsterdam in May 1945 to live with his sister-in-law and brother-in-law. From his own family, only Max and one nephew survived.
At a Jewish community dance, Max met Sara Carles, and they married on Nov. 28, 1946. They had one daughter, Betty Sofia.
Max and his family left Holland on May 8, 1956, and, after a short stay in Trenton, N.J., they came to Los Angeles on Aug. 16, 1956. They lived in Culver City, and Max worked as a presser until he retired in 1977, at 53.
Sara died on Sept. 2, 2010. Max then cared for Sara’s sister, Klara Halberstadt, who lived at the Palm Court retirement community in Culver City. She died in January 2013.
Nowadays, Max, 90, rides his bike four mornings a week to Culver City’s Senior Center, where he plays pool. He also spends time with his daughter and speaks daily with his grandson, who lives in Singapore.
“They asked me how come I came back. There is no answer,” Max said. “I cannot say because I did, or because I did not. I cannot say it. Nobody can say it.”