Times Past

World War ll soldier escaped with 'the enemy' and became lifelong friends

“I realized that if we were moved underground, freedom would be far away. A cold shiver crept up on me. I thought of Karl and longed for the day to turn to night, so that the third meeting could take place. I heard the welcome greeting, ‘Max.’ ”

Max Gendelman was a Jewish American soldier captured during Hitler’s “last ditch” gamble at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

As the Soviet Army rapidly moved into Germany from the east, the American advance stopped at the Elbe River. Max had no way of knowing that the Allies had agreed to make the Elbe the frontier between the victorious armies. Max had managed to escape twice.

After being recaptured each time, he was convinced that he was being kept alive to serve as a slave laborer in a vast underground facility that the Nazis were reputedly building. Max was being held in a barbed wire compound adjacent to a farm owned by the grandmother of Karl Kirschner, a wounded German aviator who was recovering on the farm.

The two men began to meet late at night to play chess.

“When the fence and barbed wire were lifted, I eagerly crawled under it. In the loft, the delicious odor and sight of his grandmother’s prepared foods — heaven on earth, almost as good as what my mother always made for me — greeted me. I washed down the food with a beer and started a new cigar. Then we talked.”

The rumble of the approaching Soviet tanks could be heard in the background.

Karl spoke: “Max, I have given my situation a lot of thought. I talked to my mom and told her that I didn’t think I would be able to survive here much longer. So what are we going to do about it?”

Max asked, “What’s this we?”

Karl responded, “You and I must leave here very soon. As far as the German military is concerned, I am a defector, and you have two red triangles on your back that you told me indicate you’ve been caught twice. They will shoot you on first sight. Max, I know the terrain here and can navigate these hills and woods. With luck, we will get through the German lines before the Russians arrive, and you will help me get to the right people on the American side.”

And so with the assistance of Karl’s family forged identity papers, clothing, two bicycles and a gun were collected. The two men headed into the heavily wooded mountains between Germany and what is now the Czech Republic in the company of Nick Grano, an American POW from Ohio.

When they were spotted by a German patrol, Karl said he “was escorting two prisoners to a base camp.”

They finally encountered an American patrol in a half-track. Max and Nick shouted, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! We’re GIs. Yankees!”

They were free men.

Karl was quickly escorted away by American intelligence. In poverty-ravaged occupied Germany, he managed to complete medical school and immigrated to America.

With the help of his friend Max, he completed his residency in pathology and began to practice in San Luis Obispo. His pathology laboratory greatly enhanced the practice of medicine in our region, offering onsite tissue evaluation in critical cases. His associate in that practice was Dr. Maria Barrows, a refugee from the Holocaust.

Karl married Dodie Herzog in 1953. His three sons continue to work and live in San Luis Obispo. Tom Kirschner’s wife, Laura, has enriched and given new direction to the lives of a whole generation of special needs students at Hawthorne School. Their son Joe and daughter Grace are gifted teachers in Templeton and Arroyo Grande. Tom and Laura’s younger children, Willie and Biba, adopted from Kazakhstan, are amazing athletes at SLO High.

Max Gendelman and Karl Kirschener were bonded as brothers. As Karl was dying in 2009, Max flew from Florida to be at his bedside.

You can read the full account of Max and Karl’s escape in Tale of Two Soldiers: The Unexpected Friendship between a WWII American Jewish Sniper and a German Military Pilot.

Correction: Last week’s column erroneously cited the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge as December 15/16, 1945. It was of course 1944.