Robert Max was sitting in the office of his Summit home several weeks ago, looking at a black-and-white photo of his late wife of 67 years, Shirley, who died in 2015 at 89. He said he saw Shirley’s lips move.
“That was my signal to have a third bar mitzvah,” said Max, who, after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, escaped after 90 days in a Nazi slave labor camp and is among the state’s most admired veterans.
“Seventy years is the expected lifespan of most humans and, if we reach a new start after that, are eligible for another bar mitzvah,” said Max, citing Psalm 90:10, which he said Shirley taught him. “Seventy plus 13 was 83, and I had my second bar mitzvah. Then I feel Shirley gave me a signal after another 13 years — now I’m 96 — to have a third.”
Max’s third bar mitzvah will take place Saturday, Nov. 9, at Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah, a synagogue in which the Maxes are listed among the 27 founding families from 1994. He will read from Lech Lecha, the week’s Torah portion, and some 130 people will be attending, according to its spiritual leader, Rabbi Hannah Orden.
Max’s third bar mitzvah is his second significant community event in a little more than two weeks. A permanent exhibit of his life opened Oct. 24 at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark. The exhibit, “The Long March Home,” the title of his memoir, features an account of his military experience and escape from Nazi captivity presented with artifacts he provided to the society.
“We thank Bob and Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey executive director Linda Forgosh and her people for helping us put this together,” said Steven Tettamanti, executive director of the New Jersey Historical Society.
Max lives a life devoted to his family — two children and five grandchildren — and the Jewish community.
“There really were two roads … at the same time,” said Max. “One was congregational life — I was president of Reform Temple Sinai in Summit, then our group pulled away and formed Beth Hatikvah, where I was the first president — and the other, what we accomplished in the general community.” The Maxes’ company, LR Communications, worked to improve and streamline communication for clients, both internally and with the public, for major firms such as New York Life and Prudential.
At Beth Hatikvah on Shabbat morning all the past presidents will come up to the bimah to honor Bob, according to Orden.
“One of our past presidents moved to Baltimore and he is coming back for this,” she said. “We want to do everything we can to show Bob we appreciate him.”
There will also be a lunch afterwards at which Harry Bassman of the Summit American Legion, a veterans’ organization, has arranged tributes to Max from dignitaries, including Sen. Cory Booker, a Democratic presidential candidate, and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Dist. 7). The City of Summit will issue a declaration in his honor.
“It will certainly be a day for our synagogue to enjoy and remember,” said Orden.
“Bob is such a revered figure,” said Tettamanti. “We appreciate both Bob’s experiences and what we will always have on display to both give evidence of the Holocaust and teach it.”
Following his recovery from his treatment as a slave laborer Max resumed his studies at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He walked into the campus Hillel house and met Shirley Biller, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, who was slated to be the next Hillel president. He told his World War II story and suddenly he was the Hillel president instead of her.
“I became the Hillel president and Shirley became my wife and my beacon for 67 years,” Max said, looking again at the coveted picture in his office. Aside from telling his wife and college peers, he kept his story of surviving Nazi torture to himself until 1988.
“I figured the war was over and I wanted to forget it,” he told NJJN. “I had a horrible experience and I wanted to move on in life and establish myself.”
In the years that followed he and Shirley established a foundation at Ohio University to bring a famous speaker to campus. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel was the choice in 1988 and the university’s president invited the Maxes for the weekend’s events.
“I heard, from his lips while we were sitting with him, the story of the book ‘Night,’ as he had written them,” said Max, referring to Wiesel’s account of his experiences in the Shoah.
“I don’t have to tell you what inspiration that was,” he said. “I had been quiet for all those years. And you know his theme, ‘Never Forget.’”
Soon after, Max’s grandchildren were sitting on a couch in his home and started asking him questions about his war-time experiences. “Then I decided this wasn’t only about me, but a story I had to tell,” he said. “Today, I am the only one left out of our slave labor group.”
Since then, just as Abram left his homeland to spread the word about God in Lech Lecha, Max has told his story to anyone who will listen.