Last act of tribute to a teen war hero

By Keren David, June 4, 2009
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Dunkirk 1940: Maxie Rothberg died five days before the rescue operation

Dunkirk 1940: Maxie Rothberg died five days before the rescue operation

A 19-year-old British soldier lay dying on the ground, bleeding copiously from a wound in his neck caused by German shrapnel.

He gasped a few last words to his sergeant. “I am a Jew, please make sure I am buried as one.”

The sergeant later wrote to the mother of young Maxie Rothberg regretting that he was not able to comply with this request, but stressing that her son died a hero’s death.

Nearly 70 years later, Maxie’s brother and other family members have gathered at his empty grave in the military cemetery at Veurne in northern Belgium — a sole Magen David amid a sea of Christian crosses — to say kaddish and pay tribute to the lost boy whom most of them never knew.

Maxie Rothberg was an East End boy who spent his childhood in the Norwood Orphanage after his father died and his mother could not afford to look after her children. At the age of 15 he left to live with his older sister and train to work in her dressmaking business.

He signed up to fight the Nazis as soon as he was old enough, along with his brothers.

Maxie served as a driver for the Royal Engineers, and was part of the British Expeditionary Force preparing for the expected German assault on Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

In May 1940, with the British Army in retreat, Maxie and his comrades were left to defend Veurne. Hopelessly out-numbered, they set up a stronghold in a trench to defend the town. Maxie would never make it to Dunkirk for the evacuation which saved nearly 370,000 British troops.

“What a terrible waste of a young life,” said Maxie’s nephew Mark Radberg, from Mill Hill in London, who is named after his uncle and who organised the anniversary trip to Veurne.

“I think it is paramount that British Jewry does not forget the sacrifice made by our Jewish boys who were killed fighting for Britain and against the Nazis.”

Eight members of the family travelled to Veurne, including Maxie’s brother, Alfred, now 84. They said prayers at the grave and Mark Radberg, who served for many years in the Israeli army, read a letter he had composed to his uncle. “You died a hero’s death and, soldier-to-soldier, I salute you,” he read.

Many family members had visited Maxie’s grave before, but they had never before joined together to try and give him the Jewish funeral he never had.

The family met Father Wilfried Pauwels, a Catholic priest and local historian. He was 13 at the time of the invasion and hid in a cellar during the German artillery bombing.

He led them to the trench by the canal where Maxie and his comrades defended the town. Father Pauwels said he believed that Maxie had been buried near the trench, very close to the cemetery. The family recited kaddish again, to try to fulfil Maxie’s dying wish.

Another cousin, Howard Radley, later wrote to Father Pauwels: “Let us hope that there will never be another time like that — it is through people like you that we can access the memory and knowledge of the true horror of war. It is important to remember those who fell and why.”

    Last updated: 10:18am, June 4 2009