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From the streets of Vienna, to the trenches of WWII

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A view of Pegasus Bridge, with Martin Maxwell’s glider sitting on the ground behind it.

Martin Maxwell chose his name from a phone book.

It was two weeks before D-Day, in 1944, and he didn’t want to be captured behind enemy lines with the name Max Meisels. So, along with other Jewish troops serving in the British Armed Forces, he was instructed to find a gentile-sounding name from the phone book. He looked for a name that was close to his own, and that’s how Max Meisels became Martin Maxwell.

Even though he was serving in the British military, Maxwell isn’t British himself. He was born in Vienna in 1924 and went to live in an orphanage when he was 11, after both of his parents died.

In November 1938, a few years after moving to the orphanage, Maxwell, who was 14 years old at the time, was walking down the street, when he found a young girl looking for her mother. Maxwell knew where her parents lived and began to lead her there, when three members of the Hitler Youth attacked him. A Christian woman saw what was going on and chased the Hitler Youth off.

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When Maxwell went back the next day to thank her, she wasn’t there.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw. The whole apartment was burnt. The neighbours came out and said, that night, two big SS men came and they beat her and her husband and burnt their home and took them away,” Maxwell said during an interview with The CJN.

The incident was a foreshadowing of what was to come. The next night, the Jews were all arrested and pushed through the streets, as angry crowds kicked and spat at them. It was Nov. 9, 1938 – Kristallnacht.

Maxwell and his older brother were confronted by an SS officer, who told them to follow the other Jews. But his brother had a letter from an officer of the SS who he’d previously done some work for. When he showed the officer the letter, Maxwell and his brother were directed away from everyone else.

Martin Maxwell when he was 22 years old.

The next day, Maxwell learned that everyone else had been sent to either the Polish border, or to concentration camps. But the letter saved Maxwell and his brother from that fate and allowed them to take the Kindertransport to England.

Their three sisters were not allowed to travel with them, so Maxwell’s brother put them in an orphanage in Paris, thinking that it was the safest place in the world. Only the youngest of the three survived the Holocaust.

Maxwell joined the British Armed Forced when he was 17. At first, he was considered an enemy alien because he was born in Austria, so he was only allowed to join the pioneer corps. But Maxwell wanted to do more.

“I didn’t join the army to dig ditches. I want to go in a fighting unit,” he said.

So he managed to get himself transferred to the tank corps through connections he’d made by playing soccer for the army. From there, he applied to be a glider pilot. Military gliders are unpowered aircraft that are towed up in the air by military planes and glide silently down to their targets.

“Seven hundred people applied to become glider pilots. They only needed 50 … and then came the special day. It was August, it was 92 degrees, and in full uniform carrying rifles or machine guns, (we) marched 10 miles. After two or three miles, like flies, they passed out. Only 70 of us finished,” he said. “Now we had to learn how to fly.”

That’s how Maxwell found himself adopting a name from a phone book, in advance of D-Day. He was part of a mission to take and hold bridges in Normandy, to prevent the Germans from sending reinforcements. He was sent to was Pegasus Bridge.

I couldn’t believe what I saw.
– Martin Maxwell

“There was only one major problem we had: you could not use your rifles or your guns,” he said. “The garrison was close to three-quarters of a mile away. If we had used our guns, we’d have woken up the garrison and we wouldn’t have had a chance. So we had to use our knives and bayonets.”

As he recounted the story, Maxwell seemed to still be affected by the memory of killing people in hand-to-hand combat.

After they took the bridge, paratroopers arrived to help defeat the German garrison and, “The next day, we saw all the amazing, amazing D-Day taking place,” said Maxwell.

He was deployed again shortly thereafter to Arnhem, in the Netherlands. The British wanted to end the war by Christmas 1944, but they overreached (the subsequent Battle of Arnhem became the source material for the book and movie, A Bridge Too Far).

The Meizels family. (Courtesy Martin Maxwell)

“We technically fought for seven days. The last three days, we didn’t have any medicine, any food, any water. And the Dutch people, even children who wanted to bring us food and drink, when the Germans caught them, they shot them right on the spot,” said Maxwell.

On the seventh day, one of the officers sent Maxwell to try to find out what was happening, since he was in the best shape. Maxwell had barely left the trenches when a bombardment hit them, killing most of the people he had left behind moments before.

“I was lifted up in the air, turned around and smashed against a tree. I heard somebody scream. I was the one screaming,” he said. “My thigh was sticking out (of my leg), my hand – it never healed – was broken in half, my ribs were broken and I passed out.”

Maxwell was found by two British medics and that was the end of his fighting in the Second World War. He eventually found his way to Canada in 1952, where his sister was living. He washed cars for a few weeks, then worked as a salesman. One day, someone suggested he start a business of his own, so he did. Now 94, he still operates it to this day.