We were just with Max Glauben – feisty, constantly smiling, mischievous and poignant in every moment. He just spoke to our senior class days ago as they finished their studies of the Holocaust for what should have been preparations for their trip on the March of the Living. He was meant to speak to our students again today on Yom Hashoah.
Max passed away today. On Yom HaShoah. He was 94 years young. A man who dedicated his life to educating the world about the Shoah, who lived through the worst and came out stronger and more passionate than ever, and of all days, he returns to his creator on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Pretty mischievous of you, Max.
I first met Max when we traveled to Poland years ago, and while I can never claim to have the closest connections that many in our Dallas community had with him, I immediately knew I wanted to absorb as much as I could from him – his life force was so palpable. His humor and wisdom right there at the surface to be enjoyed by whoever he was with in any moment.
I vividly memorized every bit of his story he would tell. This was my first time to Poland, and I chose not to hang back as some adult chaperones do on these trips. Instead, I was always right in the front, listening – and hopefully modeling for my students the importance of what Max was teaching.
Today, during our high school memorial ceremony, I shared the sad news of Max’s passing with our students, and I shared one brief story of Max – one memory that stands out strongest.
That year the March of the Living tried something new. Late one evening while in Warsaw, our buses traveled to the not-yet-open-for-visitors Jewish Museum, and there we met with a group of non-Jewish high schoolers from the area. We had very interesting group dialogue between the teens from our trip and the local teens – discussing similarities, differences, as well as feelings about the Holocaust and Holocaust education. Overall, I felt it was an impactful and successful experiment.
However, there was a tense exchange that was also memorable. At one point in these conversations, one of the survivors traveling with our group and educating our students became very emotional and animated – angry in fact. She began blaming and accusing these young adults for the crimes of their families in stealing her home, her belongings, her childhood. It was raw, real, hard, and made the experience that much more authentic, at least for me.
To be clear, I do not blame this amazing survivor, nor do I judge her for her anger and outburst. It was genuine and emotional and difficult, and I don’t know how she and Max and the other survivors that traveled with the March of the Living each year summoned the strength to do so.
The next morning we continued our journey with a walking tour of Warsaw. I quickly and deliberately made sure to find myself next to Max. We walked, if my memory serves, from the Umschlagplatz (the wide open town central plaza that was used for round-ups and selections) to Mila 18, the site of the headquarters for the famous ghetto uprising. Max grew up on Mila Street.
I walked arm in arm with Max and peppered him with questions. He obliged me, smiling the whole way. I gently poked the subject toward the events of the night before. I asked how he felt watching the heated exchange, and I asked him how he felt coming back to Warsaw. How he felt toward Poland, toward Poles. Was there understandable anger? Hatred? Was it hard for him as well?
His answer, which I am sure he thought was simple and common sense, was complex and profound. He told me the only one hurt by holding on to that kind of poison is the one doing the holding. It eats you up, he said. He does not hold any hate for those people, past or present. He said he holds onto, and teaches about, love and understanding.
With a simple bit of deep mussar (the area of Torah literature dedicated to character development), Max quickly dismissed the premise of my question and showed his true character. He was my master-teacher at that moment. There were many master-teacher moments with Max, but that small answer will never leave me.
Years later, our community in the midst of the first few months of the pandemic had to find a way to commemorate Yom HaShoah despite not being able to gather together. Once again, we turned to Max to teach us. I sat in his kitchen, elbow to elbow with Max, and while I wore my mask and conducted the interview, asking questions of Max from a six-foot distance off-camera, Max sat on camera with his smile filling up the entire zoom screen for our whole school community and beyond. We zoomed together to learn from Max and appreciate the magnitude of Yom HaShoah. With hundreds of people logged on and participating, submitting questions, and listening to Max’s every word, I was once again thankful to be so close to best hear his every answer.
With Max’s passing our world is a bit darker today. We take one step closer to a sad truth. That in only some few years, (may all survivors live and be well until 120 years of joy and comfort) we will live in a world, and raise our children in a world, without first-hand witnesses and survivors of the Shoah. That means that Max’s stories are even more valuable. His memories are more precious.
We should all of us, each and every one of us, students, adults, parents and grandparents, all who are able – find our way to be there in Poland. See the camps with our own eyes. See the walls of the ghettos and the tombstones for whole communities that line the grassy silent fields of Treblinka. We must all see the mound of ash and human bone at the center of Majdanek. We need to take up Max’s mantel and make sure that there will always be people who can say: ‘I stood there, I saw what they spoke about. I know the stories and I went there, and now I will share those stories with you.’
That’s Max’s final lesson – a homework assignment.
Thank you Max for being my teacher and a funny and gentle source of inspiration. Thank you for being that for so many hundreds and thousands.
I hope I do well on your homework assignment.
Yehi Zichro Baruch, May his memory be for a blessing.