“I was waiting in line to be interrogated. In front of me was a young Jewish soldier from New York, with a name like Goldstein. He was asked several questions and then they looked at his dog tags. The SS officer shouted, ‘Sie sind ein Jude.’ (You are a Jew.) He killed him instantly, saying, ‘Sie sind jetzt ein guter Jude.’ (You are now a good Jew.)”
Max Gendelman, an American of Jewish ancestry, was in deep trouble. He was a sniper attached to the 99th Infantry in the Ardennes forest between Belgium and Germany in the early morning of Dec. 16, 1945.
That’s when the Nazi’s last ditch effort against the Anglo-American advance began.
The 99th Infantry’s stiff resistance stopped the Sixth Panzer Army's infantry. John S. Eisenhower, son of Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allies, credits that action with being decisive in preventing a German rout in the Battle of the Bulge.
The 99th lost 20 percent of its effective strength in the harsh winter combat. Max, separated from his unit, was one of those captured. The Germans herded Max and other prisoners into a farmhouse.
A German officer came into the room shouting “Aufstehen!” (stand). No one understood, so no one moved.
The command was shouted two more times. Then the officer raised his pistol and shot one of the still sitting Americans in the head. Max, feeling that he had nothing to lose, shouted, “Everybody up . . . up! This s.o.b. means business.”
The officer ordered Max to come to him. He asked Max’s name. Max spelled “Gendelman” out with a second “n,” a German, not a Jewish way of spelling. The officer said that Max did not speak good German. Max just shrugged his shoulders.
And so a Jewish boy from Milwaukee became the interpreter and thereby the effective leader of the American POWs. But he had to keep his ethnicity secret. The POWs were taken to the east in sealed boxcars identical to those used in the Holocaust. Many died in the cramped, unsanitary conditions. Their greatest fear was that of being strafed by American fighter planes.
Max constantly prayed the S’hma, the prayer from Deuteronomy that he had learned as a young boy.
Eventually, the prisoners were quartered in Saxony, not far from the firebombed city of Dresden and the advancing Soviet army. They could hear the advance of the Red Army and knew that the Americans were coming from the west.
As the Germans began to desert their posts, Max led several briefly successful escapes, only to be recaptured. Eventually, the prisoners were taken to the Fischer farm near the Saxon villages of Linda, where they were quartered.
They were permitted to walk within the precincts of the fenced farm. There in the pleasant April spring, Max saw a young Luftwaffe lieutenant with his arm in a sling. Karl Kirschner, who a decade later would become the first pathologist in San Luis Obispo County, was recuperating on his grandmother’s farm after being shot down by the Russians.
The American POW and the wounded German pilot began to play chess in the middle of the night. The game soon was enhanced with real food, cigars and cognac supplied by Karl and his grandmother.
Karl told Max about his Uncle Felix who had immigrated to Mexico in the early 1900s. Karl wanted to join the trans-Atlantic migration. Both men were aware of their precarious positions. Karl might be captured or killed by the Soviets. Max might be sent as a slave laborer to the Nazi’s underground facilities.
The two men decided to escape together to the American lines. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that ended with Karl’s death at his Stenner Creek Ranch in 2008.
To be concluded in Part Three…