“I’m a simple man … [and] life is very simple,” Max Webb said. “Only problem we have is people make it complicated.”
Webb, a home builder and philanthropist, addressed approximately 500 people as he accepted the Eternal Flame Award during March of the Living’s Tribute to Life Gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on March 21. And while the audience laughed at his comment, a measure of seriousness undercut the remark.
Webb survived 12 labor camps and six concentration camps; he had face-to-face encounters with Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor known for conducting human experiments on camp inmates; and he survived a death march in 1944.
Liberated from Waldenburg on May 8, 1945, Webb married Sala Shapell that same year and soon had two daughters. In 1952, he and his family immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Los Angeles. In 1955, he co-founded a private home-building company with his brothers-in-law, Nathan and David Shapell. The success of the company, now known as Shapell Homes, has enabled Webb to make good on the vow he made many years ago to help the Jewish people.
“In my life, I’ve solved a lot of problems,” said Webb, who recently turned 95.
Indeed, his donations have funded scholarships for March of the Living as well as construction and activities at Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University; synagogues, including Beth Chayim Chadashim and Congregation Beth Israel; Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Video presentations at the gala highlighted moments from Webb’s life and past March of the Living programs.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who presented Webb with the award, described him as a dancer, a builder and a lover of the Jewish community.
Webb was once a dance teacher and he continues to dance until this day, Wolpe said. “Even now you see in the grace of his movements, and the grace of his life; he never stopped dancing.”
Among the speakers at the March of the Living gala were Bruce Powell, founding head of school of New Community Jewish High School; Jeffrey Gunter, vice chairman of March of the Living International’s national advisory board; Harry Zimmerman, chairman of March of the Living International’s western region; and Maya Cohen, a 2004 March of the Living participant.
Also at the event was retired U.S. Army Sgt. Rick Carrier, who offered a complementary narrative to Webb’s story of survival.
On April 10, 1945, the day Carrier turned 20 years old, he was on a search for engineering supplies and equipment left behind by the Nazis in Weimar, Germany, when he discovered the Buchenwald concentration camp. He helped liberate the prisoners by blowing up the gate’s lock.
“I went from being a teenager to an adult very fast, so fast that it scared the s—- out of me,” Carrier said.
Carrier’s presence at the gala marked a new beginning for March of the Living. This year, the program celebrates its 25th anniversary, and, for the first time, concentration camp liberators, Carrier included, will accompany the teenagers, survivors and educators participating in the march.
A delegation of high school students from Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School, who will be participating in the April 16-30 March of the Living this year, walked onto the hotel ballroom stage wrapped in Israeli flags.
Of the 10,000 students worldwide participating in March of the Living this year, 202 are from Los Angeles.
BJE, Builders of Jewish Education, a beneficiary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, runs the trips locally. More than $100,000 in scholarship money was distributed to the participating L.A. students this year.
Nine survivors will accompany March of the Living’s L.A. contingent this year, along with David Cohen, a camp liberator from Southern California. However, with each passing year, as the survivors age, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to participate in what is a physically and emotionally demanding trip.
“So, what happens is,” Monise Neumann, director, BJE March of the Living, said, “the staff and kids who have gone before, who then become staff, will become the storytellers.”