Max Heinz Nathan was born on May 5, 1920 in Berlin. He was the only child of Werner and Grete Nathan, who were also born in Berlin, like their parents before them. In fact the Nathan family history in Berlin dates back to 1671, when Max’s 6th great-grandfather, Nathan Veitel Meyer, was one of 50 families allowed to settle in Berlin, after the Jews were expelled from Vienna.
Max’s father Werner was a Rechtsberater, a legal adviser. The family was well off. But things really started to go downhill in 1931 for Werner, as he could no longer work as a Jew. And later, as a Jewish child, Max Heinz Nathan could no longer attend public school, and so he went to the Jewish ORT school in Charlottenburg, that had been set up to train Jewish boys in vocational skills – skills that would ultimately save Max’s life – plumbing, pipe laying, and engineering. This was the last school the Nazis closed down. Max’s parents had to sell everything they had bit by bit, just to survive, but they were determined to protect their only child, even if it meant they would never see him again. So in March 1939 Max was able to escape to England, and was immediately sent to Kitchener camp in Richborough, Kent. He was just 18 and was one of a group of 100 men who had the necessary construction skills to refurbish this old WWI refugee camp, which would soon house about 4,000 German Jewish men. Max dug trenches all day long, and laid water and sewer pipes. Once the bombing started, these Jewish men were finally allowed to form their own fighting unit in Britain, called the Pioneer Corps, and Max served for 4 years in this unit, the RAOC and the REME. The REME made him sit an entrance exam, since Max said he knew engineering. He passed it with 100%. They thought he had somehow cheated, because nobody had ever got 100% before! So Max offered to sit the exam again. And again he got 100%! During all of this time, he had no idea what was happening to his parents and grandmother back in Germany.
In November Werner and Grete were forced to move into a Judenhaus with Max’s grandmother Julie, as Jews could no longer rent from Aryans. Werner was working at the Jewish Community where he earned a few marks. It was while he was at work that Werner learned, two weeks later, that he, Grete and Julie were about to be deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. He telephoned Grete and told her she needed to pack 3 small suitcases of clothes, and to hide his father’s stamp collection in amongst the clothes, to be used for bribes, if needed. And this was no ordinary stamp collection, as it consisted of first edition stamps. Of course they never saw their suitcases again once they were loaded into the cattle truck en route to Theresienstadt, or the stamp collection. Julie died of pneumonia and starvation 9 months later. She was 71. But Werner and Grete, somehow managed to survive – barely. The story goes that their Nazi guard gave them a slice of bread to eat every day, out of respect for Werner’s service to the Kaiser during WWI, and the lung injury he had received.
6 years after he had left for England, Max found out that his parents had survived Theresienstadt, and were now living at Deggendorf displacement camp in Bavaria. He sent them a photo postcard of himself in uniform, and on the back he wrote: “My beloved parents, I hope the censor passes it, considering you have been in the concentration camp for 4 years and you have not seen me for 6 years. Have mercy censor! This photo will stand any xray examination. No secret.”
Max then managed to get himself discharged and enlist with the American forces in Bavaria in their intelligence division, so he could be near his parents, and help them try and get out of Germany. For two years they tried, but nobody would take them because of Werner’s weak heart and lung condition. Eventually they were placed in a home for survivors in Wurzburg. It was there, despite their ill health and all they had suffered, they were able to have some measure of peace and quiet in their final years. They were also able to meet their first granddaughter Judith, when she was just 2 years old. They are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Wurzburg.
Max Heinz Nathan met his future wife Fay Mendzigursky at the Cosmo restaurant on Finchley Road around July 1948. The Cosmo had become a haven and a sanctuary of sorts for German-speaking refugees like Max and Fay, most of whom lived in N.W. London. Fay had escaped on the Kindertransport from Leipzig, Germany. They were married 3 months later in a registry office. When their first daughter Judith was born 3 years later, Max was unemployed, England was still on rations, and they lived in just one tiny room in a Maida Vale slum. But Max was very intelligent and learned things very quickly. He started to sell life insurance. Things got better and the family moved out to the suburbs (Edgware) and into their own home. But tragically, six years later, Max died unexpectedly of a heart attack in January 1963, while driving to work. He was just 42, Fay was 38, and their two daughters, Judith and Jacqueline, were just 11 and 8. Max is buried at Hoop Lane cemetery in Golders Green, London, just a few rows away from Leo Baeck, the famous Berlin rabbi.
Written by Judith E. Elam for her father, Max Heinz Nathan