Celebrating fierce woman, Elisabeth Maxwell

Last week, I attended a memorial service in Oxford, in honour of a woman who, over the last 20 or so years of her long life, received numerous honours and awards to add to her academically earned MA and D.Phil from Oxford University.

Despite these including honorary fellowships of Tel Aviv University and the Woolf Institute, the Sir Sigmund Sternberg Award and the Anne Frank Institute’s Eternal Flame Award, the woman we were remembering was not Jewish but a French Huguenot Protestant, and although there were Jewish elements to the occasion, we were in the imposing 13th century University Church.

She was Elisabeth “Betty” Maxwell, widow of media magnate Robert “Bob” Maxwell — who of course was Jewish notwithstanding his adoption of transient Catholic and Protestant identities in the course of a spectacularly colourful life. She died in August of this year at the age of 92.

Robert and Elisabeth (the romantic echo of the Brownings is not inappropriate) had nine children, two of whom died tragically young.

She was a great friend to the Jewish people in both word and deed

Between them, over the years, they encountered thousands of people. And while Bob almost invariably touched the lives of others in less than benign fashion — a considerable understatement in many cases — Betty always did so in a totally benign way.

My family got to know Betty and members of her family after her husband had died and she had written her tellingly titled autobiography, A Mind of My Own.

We spent several holidays at her home in south-west France and she visited us in London. Where one might have expected grandeur, instead she exuded a natural charm, enhanced by a French accent that remained with her even after decades of living in England.

A vivid memory is of introducing her to the actor David Suchet in 2001, when he was about to play Anthony Trollope’s con-man financier Augustus Melmotte in a television adaptation of The Way We Live Now.

The fictional Melmotte, anticipating the real Maxwell, is an outsider welcomed into but despised by the high society within which he operates. And, like Maxwell, he becomes an MP and lives in a large country house. Jewishness and antisemitism are unstated but hinted at.

In playing Melmotte, Suchet was keen to draw on Maxwell, and Betty agreed to provide the actor with a few insights. Listening to her many contrasting recollections was a compelling experience.

If Bob was feckless and lacking in principles, he was also fearless and life-affirming (she utterly rejected the possibility that the cause of his death in 1991 was suicide).

If the latter years were turbulent, the early years were exciting. He had shown great bravery in the war but became “absolutely corrupted” as his empire grew. David Suchet won a Bafta for his portrayal and years later played the real Maxwell in another television drama.

Betty attributed much of her husband’s character traits to his bitterly deprived childhood and to the loss of a great many family members in the Holocaust. She accompanied him on a visit to Auschwitz, where he broke down and where she determined to confront the issue of the slaying of Jews in Christian Europe.

And confront it she did, starting by getting Maxwell’s then publishing company, Pergamon Press, to publish a Holocaust studies journal and going on to set up the Remembering for the Future organisation, which spread into 24 countries, translating the “Never Again” sentiment into constructive, educational planning.

This was not some lofty, grande dame altruism. As a devout Christian, she was angry. The blame for the Holocaust, she argued, could not be parcelled off exclusively to Hitler and the Nazis. It was inspired by centuries of Christian teaching.

Consistently and energetically, Elisabeth Maxwell was, in word and deed, a great friend to the Jewish people. The Oxford memorial service concluded with a prayer adapted from the Hebrew siddur, beseeching the Almighty to receive “the soul of our sister who hath been gathered unto her people.”

Addressing the congregation, the university’s former vice-chancellor, Sir Colin Lucas, endorsed Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer’s description of her as a “mensch”. That she was.

Gerald Jacobs is the JC’s literary editor

    Last updated: 1:18pm, December 19 2013