Max Webb, one second at a time
It’s hard to imagine how, or why, a wealthy 97-year-old man would make the effort to go through hundreds of invoices for his building company and sign all the checks himself. It’s even harder to imagine him catching mistakes and telling his bookkeeper things like, “I think this one is no good. I already signed it last week.” But that’s exactly the kind of thing you hear about my friend Max Webb.
“I remember everything,” he told me when I visited him last week in his spacious mid-Wilshire office. That office alone is worthy of charging admission — it holds more classic photos, personal mementos and Jewish memorabilia per square foot than a Jewish museum. It’s as if some sentimental designer came in one day and said, “Max, I’m going to put your whole life in this office!”
I’ve been bumping into Max for years now at events all over town. Max has the weathered, complex face of someone who’s seen it all, and the sharp eyes of someone who still wants to see more. He’s a short man, but his straight posture ought to be the envy of many kids I know who crouch when they walk.
As he talked with me about his life journey, he kept saying that it’s “impossible to explain my life.” In other words, he remembers a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean he can, or wants to, explain them.
After all, how do you begin to explain the pain of losing four beloved sisters and both of your parents in the Holocaust? And how do you begin to explain the mere accomplishment of surviving 12 labor camps and six concentration camps?
The stories he told me did suggest some explanations for his unlikely survival. For one thing, he was always a hustler. He grew up in a poor family in Lodz, Poland, quitting school when he was young and then taking odd jobs and making all kinds of deals on the street to help bring food to his family.
These hustling skills came in handy after the Nazis caught up with him and sent him to a series of camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. The fact that Max was physically strong helped keep him out of the gas chambers, as the Nazis preferred to use him for hard labor. But beyond his physical fitness, Max survived on the strength of his wits, hustling for a piece of bread with the same moxie he would use decades later to develop property in Los Angeles.
In one camp, he figured out a way to retrieve gold and jewelry from the abandoned clothing of those killed in gas chambers, after the Nazis would put away the clothing in a special area. He then made deals with guards, exchanging the jewelry for things like potatoes and bread that he would share with his best friend.
That best friend was Nathan Shapell, the well-known philanthropist who died seven years ago and was Max’s lifelong business partner. “Nate was in block 12 and I was in block 7,” Max said. “If I got a piece of bread, I would find him and give him half.”
When I asked him if he lived in fear during his years in the camps, he gave me a blank look, as if not wanting to show any weakness. “Never,” he replied. What he did say is that he “lived by seconds,” which perhaps was his way of impressing on me that because he could have died any second, he had little time for fear.
While looking at my notes after our visit, I noticed that Max had a tendency to use extreme words — “everything,” “impossible,” “never,” “seconds” and so on. It’s not surprising, then, that he made a bold promise to his mother the last time he saw her. After telling her about the horror of seeing Nazis throw Jewish babies out of hospital windows, he made this commitment: “If I survive this, I will do everything I can to make sure Judaism also survives.”
For the past six decades or so, Max has done just that, donating millions to all kinds of causes to help the Jewish Diaspora and Israel. His latest gift is to create a chair for his rabbi, David Wolpe, whose title will now be “The Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple.”
When Rabbi Wolpe mentioned the gift during his Yom Kippur sermon, he brought up Max’s promise to his mother, adding that, for Max, the notion that Judaism might not survive the Holocaust was a very real possibility.
I’m guessing, though, that even an extreme notion like “the fear that Judaism might not survive” is hardly intimidating to a man like Max, who’s learned during his long and eventful life that the best way to survive is one second at a time.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.