West Hampstead man escaped plane crash that killed Gone With The Wind star

A man who gave up his seat on a plane that crashed and killed a famous Gone With The Wind actor has celebrated his 100th birthday.

Maximilian Treister, also known as Manek, was born in Poland but now lives in Compayne Gardens in West Hampstead.

During the Second World War he ran “dangerous but fulfilling” clandestine missions for the French Resistance, which would bring him into great danger. Fleeing capture across Europe, he was about to embark on the final leg of his escape from Portugal to England when he gave up his plane seat at the last moment.

Hollywood actor Leslie Howard, who played Ashley Wilkes in the iconic film, took his place and was killed when the plane was shot down by Germans, as Mr Treister would find out later.

“For some reason I couldn’t take the flight or I didn’t have permission to go to London,” said the pensioner, who turned 100 on Wednesday last week (January 18).

“So I gave up my seat and went a fortnight later. I learned a few days later that that plane had been shot down and the passengers, including Leslie Howard, were killed.

“I consider myself very lucky. I could have been killed a hundred times.”

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After attending Lwow University in Poland, Mr Treister worked in Paris as a foreign correspondent and a diplomat before the Second World War broke out and his dangerous missions fighting for freedom in the French Resistance began.

When his cell was discovered he fled across Europe crossing six countries, peddling French perfume to pay his way.

When he finally landed on British soil he joined the Polish army in Scotland and later the Polish Government in Exile. He is thought to be its last surviving member.

Celebrating his 100th birthday at the Henderson Court day centre in Hampstead, where he has regular massages, he received congratulations from the Polish state.

He was thanked for having fought for Polish independence as an “example of patriotism to inspire current and future generations of Poles”.

Once in Britain Mr Treister established an electronics company where he worked until he was 93 with his wife June.

He puts his good health and longevity down to his policy of “everything in moderation” as well as good genes.

“In my family everyone was living to a ripe age,” he said, adding that growing up in the fresh air of the Polish countryside had fortified him. After he finally arrived on British soil Gone With The Wind was the first film he watched, and it remains his favourite movie to this day.