Max Nagel, who survived Nazis, Nagasaki A-bomb, dies at 82

Although he was never famous, Nagel's apparent immortality was so legendary that later in life friends and family always felt safer with him aboard their flight.

By MATTHEW GUTMAN
October 29, 2006 07:12
4 minute read.
Max Nagel, who survived Nazis, Nagasaki A-bomb, dies at 82

max nagel 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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What the Nazis did to Max Nagel's family, and what malarial jungles in Malaysia, Japanese concentration camps and a nuclear bomb in Nagasaki failed to do to him, colon cancer finally achieved. Max Nagel died Thursday at the age of 82 in Boynton Beach, Florida. Nagel, who spent the last 23 years of his life in a modest apartment not far from the Herzliya beach, is survived by his wife Nita; daughter Joanne; Nita's children from a previous marriage, Susan and Steven Goff; and a grandson. Nagel, born in 1924 to Freida and Isador Nagelberg, was never famous. But his apparent immortality was so legendary that later in life friends and family always felt safer with him aboard their flight. As a saucer-eyed 14-year-old in 1939 he was plucked from certain death as part of the last batch of 20 children smuggled out of Hamburg by the Kindertransport. He was sent to live with a foster family in Australia; his own family was dumped in the area between Germany and a still defiant Poland. According to some reports his parents and four brothers were herded into a synagogue in a shtetl near Bydgoszcz, Poland, along with 550 other Jews and burned alive. Other survivors said they might have died in Treblinka. Like so many European Jews of his generation, Nagel was never certain how his family members died. What is certain, however, is that 70 of them were murdered. In 1941 - the last living Nagelberg - he volunteered for the Australian army. He was 16, but told recruiters he was 18. In those times of trial, few argued. He was shipped off to steamy Malaysia as a private in the Signal Corps. He and his comrades battled mosquitoes, malaria and, eventually, the Japanese, who swept through the archipelago in 1942. As a POW, Nagel again was part of a mass transport, this time bound for a forced labor camp in Japan. The transports earned the moniker "hellships," not only because of the conditions on board, but because the unmarked, lumbering vessels were a favorite target for unsuspecting US bombers. Nagel was slaving away in the coal mines of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, when freedom came in the form of the second A-bomb dropped on Japan. Unscathed, he staggered out of the grit. The war was over and he was homeward bound. In 1947 my grandmother, Nagel's cousin by marriage, was alone in his New York apartment and fiending for a fag. She made herself sick smoking his last "souvenir," a rolled cigarette made from leftover Japanese cigarette butts, grass and, perhaps apocryphally, rat droppings. In the autumn of 1945 Nagel boarded an American B-17 for the flight home to Australia. With his boyish enthusiasm and curiosity - qualities that more than once saved his life - he managed to convince the pilot to let him shimmy into the tail-gunner's turret to watch the takeoff. The plane crashed. Nagel crawled free. Again, he was the only survivor. For Nagel, home was a lifelong quest for family. Just after the war, his cousin Oscar Weissman, on leave in Melbourne from the US Army, was searching for Nagel, in vain. Then one day the German migr passed a photographer's studio and instantly recognized the square jaw, languid blue eyes, and blond hair. The photographer told him he was using the picture of this Adonis-like vet named to attract business. The last Nagel was soon found. Nagel, now 22, moved to Worcester Massachusetts to join cousins who had escaped Germany to the US. Even in old age he'd say he loved being with family, because he had none. He retired from history and from the survival business, grasping for normalcy. He became a housepainter. Later he teamed up with a cousin to start a wholesale candy business. In 1961, the magnetic charm that had saved in the past helped Nagel win the hand of Nita Goff. In a life characterized by the whims of fate and serendipity, perhaps Nagel's most deliberate act was to move to Israel at the age of 59. He lived a simple life. He loved Israel, forced himself to study Hebrew, went to lectures and concerts, and became head of his apartment building's co-op in Herzliya Pituach. In Israel, Nagel sought what had always eluded him, a sense of home and redemption. In some ways he found both. On Yom Kippur he would sit in a back pew of a synagogue and read and reread a thin sheaf of yellowed letters - all that remained of his parents. Even the street where they lived in Hamburg had been erased by the Allies in a 1943 firebombing. Although he spent months and years stooped in transport ships, mines and prison cells, he was always straight-backed and gallant. He had a patrician's look, but with the help of good friends and perhaps a vodka or two at Tel Aviv's Shmulik Cohen restaurant (famous for Yiddish cuisine), he could easily slip into bawdy humor, flashing his roguish smile. He once cajoled his wife and another couple (my grandparents, incidentally) into crashing a reception for the Egyptian ambassador at the Dan Hotel. They shook hands with the dignitaries and ate and drank as if they belonged. So much experience with death drilled into him a tenacious appreciation, not for life, but for living. He died surrounded by that which he had spent his life surviving for - family.

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