Tea with Betty

There is a lovely quaint English tea house in Harrogate called Betty’s.  If you happen to be in Yorkshire, England, tea at Betty’s is a must.  It is a tradition – floral china teapots, scones, jam and cream.

I too had tea at Betty’s, on a regular basis. It was not at the tea house in Yorkshire, but in the two bedroom apartment of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Maxwell.  It was a far simpler affair as the china cups and saucers were perched on the edge of her crowded workspace, where we would settle down and begin our deliberations – usually until the tea went cold.

I never knew her husband Robert Maxwell, although for many reasons I wished I had.  After his death I came to know ‘Betty’ Maxwell very well. There were forty-five years between us, and so at times she treated me like a younger son, but mostly she treated me as a colleague, a journeyman in search of true things in a world of lies.  I came to know her after the large houses and lavish lifestyle were ruthlessly swept away leaving her a widow in a small apartment surrounded by her Holocaust books and papers.  Contrary to everyone’s assumption, she led a simple existence with many cares.  Her world consisted of a small writing desk, her trusty computer, and her dignity.  Often I would look at her and wonder how a woman who had had so much, and yet endured such ignominy, managed to have such poise.  But soon it became clear why that was so.

It was no accident that Elizabeth Maxwell became one of the founders of Holocaust studies as we know it today.  Her husband Robert had lost virtually all of his family during the Holocaust, a fact that gnawed deeply at her soul and came to define her in many ways.  Also her own Huguenot background – the protestant minority that was persecuted in France in the 17th Century – gave her additional personal sensitivity to the ravages of persecution.  As Robert Maxwell was building a substantial business empire, Elizabeth was building insight, knowledge and wisdom, raising nine children – and going to school.  Eventually she put her Oxford PhD and strong beliefs to work to lead the way on Holocaust studies and become an activist building bridges through Jewish-Christian relations.

There were days when we sat and worked planning Remembering for the Future 2000 (her third and final international Holocaust conference) whilst her sons were at trial accused of massive fraud.  While they defended their actions in court, she focused on the struggle with memory, education and research, leaving no stone unturned to find the best scholars and the most profound findings to help in our struggle with the past.  Research and fine minds were the bedrock of her world.  Her assumption was that if we need the best scientists for finding the cure for cancer and we also need the best scholars to understand how the Holocaust was possible.

One day I remember we took a break for tea in the middle of our deliberations – during which she had shown no distraction – in order to call her family to make sure they were alright.  Her sons were in the midst of one of the most significant fraud trials of the century. The poise she demonstrated to support her children (who were never convicted) and at the same time focus on ensuring knowledge and memory of the Holocaust was going to be secure for the future was quite extraordinary.

In that moment, tea cup in hand, I learned one of the greatest lessons of my life.  Elizabeth Maxwell was able to give total dedication to her pursuit of truth and integrity in the midst of a shrapnel storm of family and public turmoil, knowing that her family would only be OK, if she was true to her own convictions.  She never wavered from those convictions. The world is a more knowledgeable and engaged place today because of that.

Elizabeth Maxwell deserves to go down in history as a woman of integrity to whom the Jewish world – and indeed the world at large – owes a huge debt of gratitude for making us all more aware, more knowledgeable and ultimately safer, because as a Christian she believed that it was her duty to uphold memory and fearlessly fight the antisemitism we all fear.


















About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.