Remembering Elisabeth Maxwell

Maxwell was a wonderful person, kind and supportive, quite contrary to her husband, whom she loved despite everything.

Elisabeth Maxwell 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Elisabeth Maxwell 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell, a great friend of Jews and of Israel, passed away a few days ago, in France. The story of her husband, Robert Maxwell, herself, and her nine children, seven of whom survived childhood, is a very unusual one.
Robert Maxwell’s real name was Ludwa (Ludwig) Hoch.
He was the son of an unemployed Jewish agricultural laborer in a small village in the Carpatho-Ukraine. Elisabeth was the daughter of an aristocratic Huguenot family in France. They met after the liberation of France.
Bob Maxwell, a millionaire businessman in the publication and newspaper business, a British Labor MP, most probably an aide to Mossad enterprises concerning the Soviet Union, authorized an autobiography that told part of his story, and invented another part. His real story was that of a talented child, taught by his mother to read and write, a student at a yeshiva in Topolciany in Slovakia, who fled from there at an early age.
He made his way to Budapest, where he subsisted by stealing food in the market, was caught, imprisoned, fled, and escaped to Belgrade.
World War II had broken out, and he was now a Czechoslovak refugee wanting to serve in the Czech forces in the West. He organized a group of Czech officers, and went with them to Haifa, and from there to France. He joined the Czech forces-in-exile, but the French defeat made him run for his life to Bordeaux, where he boarded a ship with Allied soldiers, and landed in Liverpool.
He was sent to be ground crew in the Czech Air Force in Scotland, where he was Ian Jones. He chatted up a British nurse, who enabled him to approach the hospitalized commander of a famous British regiment, whom he begged to accept him, a non- Britisher, into his unit. He succeeded, and landed in Normandy, with the rank of a corporal.
His commanding officers were all killed, and he took command of a unit that overran superior German forces near the beach. He then approached his commander and asked to be given a military medal, and a promotion to officer rank – typical Maxwell chutzpah.
He certainly deserved his Military Cross, and he advanced quickly, ending the war as a major. His brazenness, courage and capacity to talk people into things they never intended to do served him well. In Paris, he married Elisabeth Maynard.
He knew or acquired a number of languages, but never forgot his native Yiddish. His English was pure Oxford, his French pure Paris, his Hungarian pure Budapest, his Czech and Russian a bit weaker, his German so-so.
He was a brutal man, but that brutality hid a very sentimental, emotional core. He was likely to weep when reminded of the family he had left behind in pre-war Czechoslovakia. He did not want to be reminded of his Jewish background, though he never denied it. It was Elisabeth who brought him back to his Jewish roots.
He asked me to become the editor of a journal (Holocaust and Genocide Studies, now very ably edited by Richard Breitman) basically because he felt guilty of having abandoned his parents. He financed the mammoth Oxford Conference on the Holocaust in 1988, but all practical affairs relating to the Holocaust were managed by Elizabeth.
He betrayed her with other women, he yelled at and cursed his employees, his attitude to his children was imperious at best, and yet he was admired by all of them, and by Elizabeth. He suffered from insomnia (I slept in the room next to his, so I know), and used the nights to read, endlessly, everything he could lay his hands on. Elisabeth supported him.
He died “mysteriously,” they said.
It is clear to me that he was murdered, while on a boat in Spanish waters. He received the equivalent of a state funeral in Jerusalem, with Ehud Olmert making a speech which fortunately was not understood by Elisabeth and her seven children (“at last you have arrived where you always wanted to be”).
Elisabeth was the chair of a major organization for Christian- Jewish dialogue, and continued to organize Holocaust conferences. Bob Maxwell’s empire dissolved at his death, as it turned out that he had stolen his employees’ pension funds and had cheated his way in and out of businesses.
Elisabeth lost her pension, all her property, and only her children continued to support her. She was a wonderful person, kind and supportive, quite contrary to her husband, whom she loved despite everything.
I knew her husband’s story, I think, better than she did, because of a peculiar connection of a cousin of mine with the young Ludwa Hoch. I never told her what I knew. In any case, he treated me very kindly, I stayed many times at the Maxwells’ mansion in Oxford and Elisabeth’s mansion in France, and I got to know him very well. But Elisabeth Maxwell I just loved.
The writer is a professor and Holocaust historian.