Max Wolff, the author's great uncle, died of the Spanish Flu at age 21.
Max Wolff, the author's great uncle, died of the Spanish Flu at age 21.

A tale of two Maxes and two pandemics — the Spanish Flu and Covid

Every Jewish family has its martyrs (mostly from the Holocaust), its myths and its marvelous menschen.

Mine does, too.

Six years ago, when little Max Lopez was born and his parents chose his name, I, his maternal grandmother, was moved. I was raised with Max Wolff as my family’s super-mensch, a man of mythical qualities. I never met him; he was my grandmother’s big brother and the star of the family.

Born in Cologne, Germany into a wealthy family (all eventually stolen/destroyed by the Nazis), Max Wolff was a brilliant student, a gifted pianist, an idealist who volunteered his time and organized food drives. He was the only son and the eldest, guiding his two younger, more social sisters with patience and playfulness. His adoring mother found a way to have him exempted from serving in World War I.

Ironically, he contracted the Spanish flu in the third wave. He was exposed while visiting his sick, infected best friend, to whom he brought home-cooked meals and plenty of entertaining novels and gossip, despite his family’s concerns. His friend survived. Max died at 21.

Fast forward to Max Lopez. This little guy — bright and brimming with mischief, curiosity, boldness and determination, a real American kid — now has Covid, probably omicron (as I write this), so far in its mildest form.

I’m thinking of the two Maxes because they share a name but not the same fate: They faced a similar virus under different circumstances and separated by four generations spanning a century.

There was no vaccine in 1918. My great-grandmother (who nursed her son but never got sick) would have today stood in line at Rite Aid or Kaiser for the vaccine. Despite being observant, she understood the value of life and the profound risk of ignoring science and medicine.

She saw the pandemic around her and read the daily newspaper to stay informed. Estimates of deaths ranged from 17 million to 100 million (3 percent of the world population). An estimated 500 million contracted it.

However, in her time, the perception of the danger was different. Everyone was on edge, hoping for a medical miracle, as the virus hit the young hardest: An estimated 40 percent of the deaths were among young adults, 20 to 40 years old. Hardly any old people died.

As I listen to anti-vaxxers and anti-science conspiracy pushers, I wonder if their attitude would be different if the first deaths had been their kids and not their grandparents. I feel lucky that scientists — immune to politics and insults — are working around the clock to save lives.

I also marvel that my grandson exhibits optimism and inherited one of Max Wolff’s finest traits — compassion: Little Max’s birthday wish in 2020, a full year before he himself got Covid, was not for Pokemon cards or Legos, but for an end to the pandemic.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Nadine Joseph
Nadine Joseph

Nadine Joseph is a writer and former journalist living in Berkeley. She is a member of J.’s board of directors.