Max Weisglass was born in the Polish city of Borszczów (current-day Borshchiv, Ukraine), on September 28, 1936. By the time he was eight, Borszczów would pass from Polish to Russian to Hungarian to German control, while Max and his parents would manage to survive the liquidation of the Borszczów ghetto only by hiding in a series of windowless bunkers, once for a full ten months.
At the time of Max’s birth, Borszczów had a population of roughly ten thousand, evenly split among Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles. Although Max was an only child, his large family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins all lived in the town. Max describes Borszczów as “a market town, a very busy town,” due to its location near the Polish-Ukrainian border. “It was an old city,” Max says, “and there was a lot of agriculture . . . a lot activity going on around that city. It was quite well-known in the area.”
Max’s father owned an art supply store, but was forced out of work after the Soviet Union took control of the region in 1939, on the basis that his work as a merchant was anti-communist. The family left Borszczów for Max’s father’s home town, where they remained for several years. In July 1941, German forces invaded the region and the Soviets evacuated. From July until September 1941, Borszczów was under Hungarian administration, then fell under direct German control.
After the Soviet evacuation, Max’s family returned to Borszczów. “We thought wrongly, obviously, that we would be better off under German occupations than we were under the Russians,” Max says. “In 1941, restrictive laws were put into effect and we had to leave our house and we had to move into the ghettos. . . . They had us put on armbands and everything was in short supply.”
The ghetto, Max recalled, was “really a terrible place to live and for a year and a half, everybody suffered.” In Borszczów, underground bunkers were the best chance for survival.
The Borszczów ghetto was an open ghetto, which allowed the inhabitants to visit a Wednesday market where bartering occurred. “The only diversion,” Max says of life in the ghetto, “was building bunkers . . . being smarter than the Germans and the Ukrainian police.” After every “action,” systematic events in which randomly selected Jews were killed or removed from the ghetto, “they knew where the bunkers were, so you couldn’t use them again,” Max recalled.
Most of the time spent inside the ghetto was centered around building and protecting bunkers. “You had to watch yourself,” Max says. “You had to build it with only a few people; you didn’t want everybody in that house to share that bunker because if the Germans discovered the bunker, they tortured them to tell if there was another, to give up the people from that house. So you had to build in secret, from your neighbors, from your family.”
The bunkers, however, could only keep people safe for so long. In summer 1943, when Max was six years old, the Borszczów ghetto was slated for liquidation, along with many others in Eastern Europe. Word eventually spread throughout Borszczów about the upcoming action and the impending closure of the ghetto.
This warning allowed for a brief period of time to prepare, and for a chance meeting that would end up saving Max and his family.
One day, Max’s father happened to see a Polish widow who had been a good friend and frequent customer of his store before it was shut down. When the store was still in operation, Max’s father allowed her to purchase on credit until she received a check from her late husband’s pension or from her daughter. “They were very good friends. They did that often and had a good relationship,” Max says. When the widow saw Max’s father looking more forlorn than usual one day, she inquired and he explained about the upcoming liquidation of the ghetto. “She had pity on him,” Max explains, “and she said, ‘Don’t worry. When the time comes, you can come to me and I will take care of you and your family.’ Imagine the excitement and how joyful my dad was!”
Late one night, before the final action, Max left with his mother and father. “It was an open ghetto, so it wasn’t encircled in barbed wire or anything like that. Just some of the streets were closed up. It was the middle of the night,” Max says. His family left with “whatever was on our back, because we took nothing with us, and we just left the ghetto around two or three o’clock at night.” They went directly to the attic of the Polish widow’s home and stayed there to wait out the action and the liquidation.
What they did not know is that they would remain in hiding for the next ten months, unable even to see sunlight.
When the final action took place in Borszczów, Max told us, “eighteen hundred people were killed. It lasted five days. We were hidden in the attic of the house and for five days we heard the shooting and the yelling and the trucks coming in, going out. It was a terrible, terrible five days.”
Despite his young age, Max was forced to become more attentive to his surroundings. “I was pretty alert for my age,” Max says. “I had to be alert, I had to be involved.” Growing up became a matter of survival.
After they left the attic, Max’s family hid in another bunker in the Polish family’s barn. Max describes the bunker as “about six feet high and about twelve by twelve. It was dug right under the barn, very well constructed and reinforced with support. There was a fifty-foot tunnel leading from the barn to the house and there were holes, two ventilation holes.”
Max explained that the hole inside the barn was created “as an afterthought because we had a kerosene lamp for light in there. After they sealed off the entrance, we found out we weren’t getting enough air in there because the lamp started flickering.”
Important issues, such as the lack of air and access to food, were addressed quickly. “The son, that evening, knocked a hole inside the barn to get more ventilation. They also started putting food down through the barn. They could take a bucket with food into the barn at any time for the animals and stock this with food for us.”
Max’s family settled in for an unknown future, alongside a doctor and his sister. The doctor had similar connections to the widow—he had cared for her husband when he was ill with cancer, and they remained in touch after her husband’s death.
“She was a very grateful to him,” Max says. “She was a very religious person, the widow, and she did it out of humanitarian reasons.”
She was so grateful for the doctor’s friendship that she had her son, an architect, build the bunker specifically for the doctor and his sister. The Weisglass family just happened to benefit from her friendship and sympathy as well.
Max’s knowledge of the outside world came from stories the doctor told about his travels, as well as from the news. “The adults would get newspapers, both in German and Polish, that were mostly propaganda, but we were able to read between the lines,” Max explains. “The doctor kept us amused with stories from his student days. He was in Warsaw, Prague, and Vienna so he had wonderful stories to tell about his school days.”
Beyond reading the papers and telling stories, there wasn’t much else to fill their time. The adults, Max recalled, “talked about the future. Hopefully the future would be better than what we were going through.”
They were unable to communicate with anyone outside the bunker. Occasionally the Polish family sent a note along with the food they delivered, but there was no way to reply. For ten months, the five of them spent their days like this, buried, cut off from society, yet protected from the horrors that awaited millions of others during the Holocaust.
After ten months, when Max’s family was finally able to leave the bunker after the liberation of Borszczów by the Soviet army in July 1943, there was no cheering celebration nor an immediate return to normalcy. “They [the Polish family] dug out the entrance and they said, ‘Come on out.’ That was the best news we had ever heard,” Max says. “They told us that the Germans left and the Russians, they’re in.” However, it was unclear if the danger was truly over. “We had to go out at night. They were afraid to let us out in the daytime because they didn’t want their neighbors to know that they hid Jews. They were afraid of the repercussions. To this day some Poles are anti-Semitic,” Max said.
Now free from their underground bunker, Max, now seven years old, and his mother got treatment for their various ailments, her kidney problems and his nervous disorder, while a Russian captain of artillery took the family in as if they were his own. Recalling them vividly, Max says, “They were very good to us. He [the captain] kept bringing us food and chocolate. He shared his rations with us. He practically moved in with us.”
After a few weeks passed, things began to normalize. One of Max’s uncles, who happened to survive by paying a Ukrainian man to hide him, got a job at a local vodka brewery, “which was a very good job because the Russians love vodka like that!” Max explained that the vodka connection led to the family’s emigration from Poland about a year later. “My family bribed a Russian captain, since my uncle had a steady access to vodka. So we managed to get out,” Max says.
His family made it to West Germany. “We were put in a displacement camp, an SS camp that was taken over by Americans who took really good care of us. We stayed there about a month, then moved on to Munich,” Max said.
His family remained in Munich until 1948, when they left for Montreal, Canada, where they settled into a large Jewish community. Max and his wife, a Holocaust Survivor from Greece, remained in Montreal until 1977, when they moved to the Unites States and settled in Houston, Texas.
Max has since visited Germany “quite a few times,” and he traveled to Poland with his wife in 2017. But has never returned to Borszczów. Now retired, Max spends a significant amount of his time volunteering for museums and speaking about his experiences. “Wherever they ask me, I go. Have car, will travel. I started with schools in the area and then I got courageous and started with the museums,” he explains. “I do the university and I go to Bradenton’s art school with 350 students. They insist I bring Dooby”—that is, Max’s dog.
As time passes, Max finds it increasingly important to share his story. “In 1945, there were approximately 2.7 million to 3.5 million survivors—figures aren’t too accurate because the population was so fluid at the time. But beginning this year, there are approximately fifty thousand left. Give it another five to ten years, there won’t be any left. . . . I’m afraid that eventually it’s going to disappear, nobody will remember it. And I want people to remember it. It’s my aim in life, whatever I have left, to instill it in as many young minds as possible.”
Max started working with the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida about six years ago. To him, Holocaust museums are “doing a great job.” Max is familiar with the railroad car on display at The Florida Holocaust Museum and sees it as a fantastic device for educating people. He also points out that the Houston Holocaust museum “was built 90% on Holocaust money, Survivor money. Most of the Survivors, after the war, most of them were very successful at whatever endeavor they tried.”
To Max, the fact that Survivors put so much of their own money into Holocaust museums shows how important it is to study, understand, and continue to share and educate others about the Holocaust, in order to make sure it’s never repeated and never forgotten.
Story by: Caitlin Coutant and Timothy Walsh
Edited by: Sarah Hagerty, Jared Stark, and Kristen Wright