Max Moses Heller and Southern Jewish Politicians

Andrew Harrison Baker, Ph.D., is a Lecturer of History in the Department of History and Geography at Clemson University.  His research focuses on focuses on politics, economic development, and southern cities in the post-World War II South with a particular interest in the Sunbelt era.

            My introduction to southern Jewish history began in October 2018 when I decided to examine the papers of Max Moses Heller, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, Austria, who built a successful manufacturing firm in Greenville, South Carolina and entered politics after his retirement at a relatively young age. As mayor, he transformed the city and held the distinction of serving as Greenville’s first Jewish mayor. This research changed the focus of my dissertation into a study of Greenville’s politics and economy during the late 20th century that I plan to turn into a book. Max Heller is a vital part of this story, and the Geffen and Lewyn Family Southern Jewish Collections Research Fellowship at the Rose Library helped me to broaden the comparative perspective of my dissertation revision and a separate planned work on Max Heller or southern Jewish politicians more broadly. 

            Max Heller’s journey to Greenville and his mere presence in the city was quite unusual. A chance encounter between Heller and Mary Mills, a recent graduate on a European tour, led Max to Greenville after he wrote to her following the Anschluss seeking assistance in leaving Austria. Shephard Saltzman, a Jewish apparel manufacturer, provided the necessary employment guarantee for Max and his sister Paula. Their parents would later follow.[1]

            The Jewish population of Greenville and South Carolina was quite small. In 1940, South Carolina had fewer foreign-born residents than almost any state and Greenville had a relatively small Jewish community.[2] Moreover, Greenville was known as “the buckle of the bible belt,” a reference to the strength of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity in the area.[3] Despite experiencing some antisemitism, the Hellers prospered in the city and Max easily won election to city council and as mayor in 1971.[4]

            Heller’s political overlapped with the increasing use of the term “Sunbelt” to denote the southern half of the country which offered a new image of the South. As one observer described the South during this period, it was “a region cleaner, less crowded, more open and honest, more genuinely religious and friendly, and suddenly more racially tolerant than any other American region.”[5] Although the degree of regional change may be exaggerated, the election of a Jewish mayor in a southern city drew attention and comment and helped change Greenville’s image.[6]

            As mayor, Heller reshaped Greenville’s downtown by reducing the number of lanes on Main Street, planting trees, embracing open air dining, and helping to recruit new companies to the area. Heller retired from politics after an unsuccessful congressional campaign in 1978 which was marred by accusations of antisemitism. His remaining years were devoted to economic development efforts and community service. He has been described as the “Father of Modern Greenville.”[7]

            My Heller research led me to want to understand how his story paralleled or diverged from other southern Jews. For instance, did other southern Jewish politicians experience the same forms of discrimination? How did his experience parallel that of other Jewish refugees in the South during World War II? Did Heller’s practices as a businessman diverge from those of other Jewish businesspeople in the South particularly regarding desegregation? I also wanted to gain a broader understanding of how Greenville’s Jewish community compared to a larger southern Jewish community. Atlanta offers a natural comparison and the holdings in the southern Jewish history collection at the Rose Library helped to answer these questions.

            Over the course of my fellowship, I conducted research in the Elliot Levitas papers, the Richard H. Rich papers, the Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild papers, and the Alfred Wolf papers. I started with Levitas to compare Heller with another Jewish politician from roughly the same era. Levitas served as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives before being elected to Congress in 1974 and serving until 1985.[8]

            Although I am still developing conclusions from my research, there are interesting points of comparison. In 1978, Carroll Campbell, Heller’s Republican opponent for Congress argued it’s “imperative that a congressman be objective in foreign policy and have absolutely no favorite nation in the world except America,” a reference to Heller’s Jewishness.[9] Levitas also received criticism related to Israel as his service in Congress often necessitated involvement in Israel related issues. In 1982, a columnist from The Atlanta Journal Constitution accused Levitas of “attempting to play both ends against the middle on the war in the Middle East” after he joined a fact-finding trip.[10] Levitas countered that he only took the trip in order to “have someone involved who took a view different from the other members and more in line with American public opinion.” A prominent member of the delegation was known for his support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and opposition to Israel.[11]

In other cases, constituents and other interested parties suggested Levitas did not provide enough support for Israel leading the congressman to reply to one letter writer: “I trust that you do not think that any member of Congress ought to vote blindly for every foreign aid bill just because it has funds in it for Israel, regardless of how bad it may be in other regards.”[12]

During Levitas’s unsuccessful reelection campaign in 1984, his Republican opponent Pat Swindall called for a Constitutional amendment to “permit voluntary vocal prayer” in public schools.[13] Levitas opposed the measure. As one aide wrote to Levitas, “He (Swindall) attacks your stand on Prayer in Schools. I don’t think that you can defend your stand to the satisfaction of those one issue voters concerned with prayer.”[14] The issue seems to parallel issues Heller faced during his congressional campaign such as an independent candidate’s argument that “he could be a better congressman because he is a Christian.”[15]

Heller’s business career also overlapped with Richard H. Rich’s leadership of Rich’s, Inc. The comparison is interesting as both men worked in related industries. Heller founded a specialized apparel manufacturing company with a national and international clientele. As president and later CEO of his family’s firm, Rich expanded the company’s reach into new cities.[16] I compared their practices regarding segregated Christmas parties and employee awards.  

I also reviewed some of the material within the Rothschild Papers related to Israel, the civil rights movement, and southern Jewish life in Atlanta. I noticed overlap between Rothschild and Heller in terms of their support for and involvement in ecumenical gatherings. I am still delving into “Alfred’s Story,” the lengthy manuscript by Alfred Wolf, whose experiences of escape from Vienna, Austria, and work in the American textile industry in some respect parallel Max Heller’s story.[17]

I hope to return to the Rose Library for additional research at a later date. I am particularly interested in researching Levitas’s earlier service in the Georgia House of Representatives and delving deeper into the Rothschild Papers. The research made possible through the Geffen and Lewyn Family Southern Jewish Collections Research Fellowship has added to the value of my projected projects in southern Jewish history by confirming patterns found in Heller’s political career and seeing how Atlanta’s Jewish community differed from Greenville’s Jewish community. I am grateful for the opportunity offered by the fellowship.

[1] Andrew Baker, “Max Heller’s Transatlantic Connections and the Palmetto State: 1979-1996,” Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina Magazine XXVII, No. 2 (Fall 2022): 17-18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Larry L. King, “Bob Jones University: The Buckle on the Bible Belt,” Harper’s Magazine, June 1966, 51-58, 53, Bob Jones University 1950’s-60’s News Articles, Vertical Files, South Carolina Room, Greenville County Library.

[4] Baker, “Max Heller’s Transatlantic Connections and the Palmetto State: 1979-1996,” Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina Magazine.

[5] Numan V. Bartley, The New South 1945-1980 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1995), 431-432. Bartley quotes Fred Hobson’s 1983 book Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain.

[6] Andrew Harrison Baker, “Max Moses Heller: Jewish Mayor in the Sunbelt South,” Southern Jewish History 25 (2022): 59-98.

[7] Diane Vecchio, “Max Moses Heller: Patron Saint of Greenville’s Renaissance” in Doing Business in America: A Jewish History (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2018), 181-211; Susan Heller Moses, “Max and Trude Heller: Giving Back to Greenville,” Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina Magazine, Fall 2016, <>.

[8] “Biographical note,” Elliot Levitas Papers, 1965-1985, Emory University Libraries & Information Technology, <>. Accessed November 16, 2022.

[9] R.D. Johnson, “The Heller-Campbell Congressional Race in South Carolina, 1978,” American Jewish History 105, nos. 1 and 2 (January/April 2021): 49-75. Quote comes from p. 65.

[10] Dick Wiliams, “Rep. Levitas was after political hay in Beirut,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 31, 1982, Box 202, Elliot Levitas Papers.

[11] Elliot H. Levitas to Dick Williams, August 2, 1982, Box 202, Elliot Levitas Papers.

[12] Elliot H. Levitas to Kenneth Wollack and Mr. Morris J. Amitay, October 27, 1978, Box 202, Elliot Levitas Papers.

[13] Swindall wants school prayer,” Georgia State Signal, March 6, 1984, Box 22, Folder 14, Levitas Papers.

[14] Jimmy to EHL, April 4, 1984, Box 22, Folder 14, Levitas Papers.

[15] Vecchio, “Max Moses Heller: Patron Saint of Greenville’s Renaissance,” 200.

[16] “Biographical note,” Richard H. Rich Papers, Emory University, <> accessed November 18, 2022.

[17] “Biographical note,” Alfred Wolf Papers, Emory University, <> accessed November 18, 2022.