Max Chayet (1891-1916). The Roll of Honour in Pryme Street Shul includes the name Private M Kaye of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). The story of this young soldier, where he was born, where he died and his real name was the subject of my talk entitled “Finding Private Kay” at Hull Day Limmud in May 2017. The answers to these questions rest on preliminary research by Jack Lennard based on documents retained by the Finestein family, research at the Public Records Office by Nicolette Berkley and a visit to Minsk, Belarus. My interest in this story stems from a recollection of my mother, who told me that a ‘Russian’ cousin had been studying medicine in England when the First World War broke out. He joined the British Army and was killed in action. This turns out to be Max Kay, recruited into the RAMC in Hull on 2 July 1915. His “Short Service” certificate completed that day shows that he was age 23, worked as a dispenser and was resident at 338 Hessle Road. His “Soldier’s Small Book” gave his religion as Jewish, his next-of-kin as an uncle, Solomon Finestein, and his place of birth as Leeds (sic). What happened in the following months is poignantly recorded in his diary, in a number of sparse penciled entries. Three days after recruitment Max left Paragon Station for Aldershot and from there to Tweseldown Camp, Farnham Surrey, home of the RAMC. Incidentally, I was surprised to find that his name is not on the new war memorial in Paragon Station, but on further enquiry understand that this is only for fallen soldiers who left from the station directly to the front. After three months training, his group, the 39th Field Ambulance, were marched to Southampton and embarked for Malta where they had a first taste of action. For example, his diary entries on 29 August are simply “Fatigue” and “Unloading wounded”. A few days later they embarked for Alexandria, Lemnos and Gallipoli, a chilling destination. Meanwhile, a touching entry in his diary on 8 September in Alexandria reads “Went to synagogue” – an online calendar tells us that this was Erev Rosh Hashana. Between landing at Cape Hellas, Gallipoli, on 16 September and embarking from Suvla Bay on 11 December, the 39th Field Ambulance would have encountered horrific action. Yet his diary entries for that period include only laconic comments such “Ill”, “diarrhea”, “Snow blizzard” and “Stretcher squads to Chocolate Hill by night”. After Gallipoli there was some respite in Egypt before a final destination, presaged by the diary entries on 10 March 1916 “Matina camp”, “Embarked small boat” and “Going up the river”, which are followed on 13 March by one single last word “Mesopotamia”. It was in that far off place, now part of Iraq, on 9 April that Max died of his wounds. His name is listed on the massive Basra Memorial formerly located at Maqil Naval Dockyard but moved in 1997, because of the sensitivity of the site, about 30 km from Basra. But that is not the end of the story. I was puzzled by the inconsistency of Max’s place of birth being given as Leeds, whilst my mother said that he was Russian. So I checked online sources such as the England and Wales birth records and the Leeds Jewish Database, and did not find a Max/Mark/Kay/Kaye birth circa 1891, in Leeds or elsewhere. In fact, documents held by Jack Lennard and the Ministry of Pensions show that he was born in Minsk. One of these is a letter dated March 1925 from the Hull solicitor John Lewenstein to the Ministry of Pensions requesting an allowance for Max’s widowed mother, Sarah Chayet of 6 Sergeyevskia Street, Minsk. A pension was indeed granted and the Ministry of Pensions records even show correspondence about a possible increase as late as 1938. Sarah was a sister of Solomon and Jeremiah Finestein, and my grandmother Matla Lifchitz. Moreover, Max’s father, Berko Chayet, was a brother of Rachel Reuben, grandmother of Barrie and Stuart. Russian records show that 6 Sergeyevskia Street had been owned by the Rubenchik family at least since the 1890s. They also show that Berko was originally from a shtetl not far from Minsk, Igumen, where the FinesteinLifchitz family originated. During the Second World War, Minsk was largely destroyed but Sergeyevskia Street did survive and during a recent working visit there I sought out Max’s home. Unfortunately, the area was being redeveloped and whilst numbers 3 and 5 were still standing, number 6 had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Nevertheless, I extracted a piece of wood which is now a memento mori, here in Israel. But the lasting memorial to Max is maintained in perpetuity by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission. And thanks to the efforts of Martin Sugarman and his team at AJEX the Basra Memorial record has now been updated to read “In Memory of Private Max Chayet, Mentioned in Dispatches….(Served as Max Kay). Son of Mrs Sarah Chayet, of Minsk, Russia”. This brief account of military service includes nothing about the man himself. Whilst I can’t say for certain what he was like, close reading of the diary, the address section and scribbled end notes, and a group photo from Tweseldown Camp suggest some things. I venture that he was reticent, self effacing, studious and dutiful. Moreover, there may have been a romantic interest in his life because on 11 October the diary notes “Received a letter from Rose” and among the addresses was a Rosa Sharah of Osborne Street. So next November at the AJEX shul service when the names of the Hull fallen are called out, please remember Max Chayet, his service, his sacrifice and his life.
Many thanks to Howard Cuckle, for his account above, sent on 05/05/2018.