Dordogne—Elisabeth Jenny Jeanne Meynard Maxwell, of a heroic French revolutionary and Huguenot family, was married to a Holocaust survivor—Leibie Hoch of Sighet. Hoch was one of a brood of Hasidic boys who slept on the same floor in their hut, escaped before he could be deported and became Robert Maxwell, one of the most important international scientific publishers in the mid-20th century. He then turned himself into a media mogul who owned tabloids in England and The Daily News in New York City, as well as the MacMillan publishing house. In 1991, he was found floating in the sea near his yacht in the Canary Islands under bizarre circumstances. His empire collapsed after his death, and when the dust settled, his wife, Elisabeth, who endured much at his hands, was left essentially destitute, and her sons, though later completely exonerated, were dragged through British courts in an attempt to exact from them penance for the sins of their father.
To this day, mystery shrouds the circumstances of Maxwell’s death. International lawyer Samuel Pisar tried without success to get autopsy results from the Spanish authorities, and to her dying day, Betty, as she preferred to be called, believed he was murdered. He is buried on Har HaZeysim in Jerusalem, was eulogized by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and reviled by the British. There was always speculation about his relationships with international intelligence agencies, missing monies, gold and enough stories to fill a series of novels that could top anything Tom Clancy or David Baldacci wrote.
In 1995, Betty was the Grand Marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade, and we met at Gracie Mansion in New York City when it was over. She was a tiny little thing with huge blue eyes, a razor-sharp mind, and a heart filled with wonder and compassion for the Jewish people. Three days earlier, she had been in the Children’s Hall at Yad Vashem, and the parade in New York overwhelmed her, she said, because she was surrounded by thousands of Jewish school children marching in freedom, as Jews, to salute the Jewish State.
A few weeks later, on the way to the Holocaust Scholar’s Conference on Long Island organized by Dr. Marcia Sachs Littell, professor and founder of the Master of Arts Program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, she stopped at a flea market on Sunrise Highway and headed for the booth where they sold hip-hop CDs. She was looking for the latest Wu-Tang Clan album, Killah Bees, because Remedy, a Jewish gangsta rapper, had written and recorded “Never Again,” a hip hop hit commemorating the Six Million and his uncle Reuven Ben Menachem. When she played it for her fellow Holocaust scholars, they were blown away...but not as much as the Big Daddy look-alike behind the counter at the flea market. We thought his pants, which were already on the way down, would fall to his toes when he heard what she was looking for!
Cut to a garage sale on the Boulevard in New Milford, NJ. Betty loved garage sales, and found a delicate crystal bell on a table in someone’s driveway. The next time I saw that bell was in her tiny apartment in London on the eve of Remembering for the Future 2000, the third major conference she had put together in England for the purpose of promoting Holocaust Education. She had invited me to visit, and as we sat and chatted, she rang the bell...and then got up and served tea! “I don’t have a servant, so I serve myself, because I love the sound of the bell!” she said, smiling her charming smile.
She was a bundle of energy and drive, and for decades, through thick and thin, the loss of two children out of nine,and her husband’s mercurial tempers, tried to help him at every turn.
When she finally tired of hearing him call her stupid, she earned her Ph.D. in Holocaust Studies from Oxford at age 60, and traced the entire history of her family and the Hoch/Maxwell family, along with the 300 names of family members he had lost in the war. She marked them with gold stars in an accordion notebook she showed me, and called them a “shower of golden stars, one for each soul.” She even found and visited his hasidic relatives in Borough Park.
In 1987 she founded the distinguished journal, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and convinced her husband to publish it at Pergamon Press, then a distinguished academic arm of Maxwell’s publishing companies. The journal is now published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In addition to being a top-notch Holocaust scholar in her own right, she was a straightforward and honest woman. Her biography, A Mind of My Own, was heart wrenching, and when I interviewed her for Lifestyles, she confessed that she and Maxwell didn’t get along well at the end because he knew that his behavior was reprehensible and she was a living reproach to his ever-greedier lifestyle. He became more abusive toward her and his two sons, Ian and Kevin. After he died, she forgave him for what he did to her, but not for what he did to their sons.
Betty never converted to Judaism (she had more credibility with the church that way, she said) and felt she was Maxwell’s Jewish guilt and he was her cross to bear. She was honest about their relationship, and would not have changed her life very much, she told me, then, but the years from 1981-1991 were very disturbing. She threw herself into her work on the Holocaust. In 1988, she organized a conference called “Remembering for the Future” at Oxford. It was the first of three such conferences, which drew academics, survivors and the public to discuss issues raised by Holocaust. Each resulted in multiple tomes of essays and articles written by top scholars in the field.
Betty invited me to participate in“Remembering for the Future 2000” in London and Oxford, and asked me to read the Second Generation response to the Survivor’s Legacy, which was read by Samuel Pisar, an Auschwitz survivor and close friend of Betty’s. It was an auspicious beginning for a journey that ended at her beautiful farm in the Dordogne. It had been her family’s home for centuries, and she had never allowed Maxwell to get his hands on it.That saved her life. It was like slipping into the 17th century for a few days, and she would invite scholars to come and relax at her very special home.
Betty’s daughter, Isabel, told reporters that after her father’s death her mother devoted “the rest of her life to working on the Holocaust and to Judeo-Christian dialogue [that] arose out of her profound need as a Christian to comprehend how such an event as the Holocaust could have happened in Christian Europe in the middle of the 20th century, and then to ensure through dissemination of the facts and teaching that it could never happen again.”
On the day Betty passed in Dordogne, at the age of 92, Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli Prime Minister, and a friend, described her as “extraordinary lady who...devoted her whole life to humanitarian aid with a particular interest [in] the commemoration of the Holocaust, as a landmark in the history of not just the Jewish people, but all humanity…She was one of the righteous gentiles who loved Israel and was proud to be involved in Israel and Jewish affairs all her life.”
Dr. Marcia Littell, her friend and a close associate, sent an email out on the day Betty passed. She wrote, “She was a courageous woman who was able to influence and educate an entire country to begin the teaching of the Holocaust. ‘Remembering for the Future’ was the first major conference ever held in the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, I was contacted through Elisabeth’s daughter, Isabel, with a message from her, ‘The Annual Scholars’ Conference has my blessing to use the title ‘Remembering for the Future.’”
“Thus, the 44th Annual Scholars’ Conference will be held March 8-11, 2014, with its theme, ‘Remembering for the Future: Armenia, Auschwitz and Beyond.’ The conference will now be dedicated to her memory.”
As Dr. Littell so aptly put it, “We send our most heartfelt sympathy to the Maxwell family. May her memory live on forever and never be forgotten.”
By Jeanette Friedman