Times Past

An unlikely friendship that spanned 64 years

“Well here’s the problem. I am not German, I am an American. I am also of Jewish ancestry. Being Jewish, I am not liked by the Germans or many of my fellow Americans. Jews are killed in Germany, and when they are captured, if Jewish, they are shot immediately. You would or could be under suspicion for escaping with a Jew. The penalty would be very severe.”

Karl Kirschener, an officer in the Luftwaffe, was quiet for a long time. He turned and looked Max Gendelman in the eye, saying, “It makes no difference.”

That was the wartime beginning of a deep friendship that lasted 64 years.

I encountered Karl Kirschener in the early 1970s. He contacted me at my office at Cal Poly seeking some maps of the region surrounding the small city of Freiberg in Saxony, then a part of the Communist-governed German Democratic Republic. I had a number of detailed maps of the area that were related to my recently completed doctoral thesis.

I enjoyed Karl’s company, and we drank too much of his excellent Scotch whiskey as we spoke about German history and German immigration to the West. He was fascinated by my paternal grandfather’s story of deserting the Kaiser’s army as a medical doctor in 1899 and having to restart medical school in America. It touched on his own experience.

Karl was a German-trained medical doctor who did his residency in America at San Diego’s Mercy Hospital. He became the first pathologist in San Luis Obispo County. He was often needed to do critical surgery room biopsies at hospitals in adjoining counties. He purchased a small airplane and flew himself to those sites. He complained that his schedule was intense.

Karl spoke of his escaping the rapidly approaching Red Army with a young Jewish-American from Milwaukee. I was interested in the story, but he was too busy to ever sit down long enough for me to get it all down. I quit drinking more than 30 years ago and lost contact with many friends who liked to relax over a number of drinks.

In 2005, my wife, Liz, retired as a county children’s librarian and began a wonderful new adventure, volunteering for Laura Kirschener, a gifted special needs teacher at Hawthorne School. Laura and her husband, Tom, Karl’s son, began to speak of the now ailing Karl. I was amazed at how much of the story I had failed to pick up on nearly 40 years ago.

Fortunately, Max Gendelman’s family interviewed both Max and Karl on tape. My friend, Hy Blythe, was a close friend of Karl. Hy sent me a transcript of these interviews titled, “Karl Kirschener’s Story.” The account of the friendship between Karl and Max is one of the truly amazing stories to come out of the Second World War, 68 years later.

The interviews were woven by Max into a book published only a year after his own death. “A Tale of Two Soldiers: The Unexpected Friendship between a WWII American Jewish Sniper and a German Military Pilot,” caught the attention of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who writes that if two such unlikely soldiers can survive and become friends in the incredible terror of total war, “then we can all certainly hope for a better world.”

The story begins with Max’s father, David Gendelman, helping his family escape from the anti-Semitism of the Ukraine in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Traveling at night to avoid detection, David towed a small boat, swimming in the river with ropes wrapped around his waist and forehead.

The family went to Havana, Cuba, because they didn’t have visas for entry to America. David was skilled in sheet metal work, turning scrap metal into useful items such as metal tabletops. By 1922, the Gendelmans immigrated to Milwaukee, where Max was born the following year.

To be continued...


Cal Poly archaeologist Dr. Robert Hoover will give a presentation on “Junipero Serra at Mission San Antonio de Padua” at 7 p.m. Nov. 6 in the Parish Hall at Mission San Luis Obispo.