The Unexpected Story of the Enduring Friendship between a WWII American Jewish Sniper and a German Military Pilot
Bob Caplan shared with me a story written by his first wife’s uncle, Max Gendelman. It is a story I feel privileged to share and that I think our community needs at this moment in our history. It is about his family, his service in World War II, and an unexpected friendship with a German military pilot.
Max was born in a Jewish neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 15, 1923. About the date he writes: I have celebrated that day [August 15] all my life as my birthday. However, late in my life, requiring an official birth record, I learned that my birthday was really August 14. Having given birth to me near midnight on the 14th, my mother told me that I had been born on the 15th. My dear mother, Faigel, which means “a little bird,” really felt it was the 15th, and my wonderful, devoted mother was always correct, so the 15th it is.”
Max writes about living for several years with my maternal grandparents, Lable and Itka – Zaide and Bubbe; they had come to Milwaukee from the Ukraine. Lable worked as a tailor. Wanting more income to bring the rest of the family from Ukraine, he bought a carriage and an old horse, which he used for peddling rags or junk or anything he could resell. He worked long hours, and eventually sent over enough money to bring his family to America – his wife Itka, their daughter, Max’s mom, Faige and Faige’s siblings.
Max writes about his father, David, and their extraordinary journey to America. Their family story was the story of refugees who found a new home in America. In Max’s words, “America would become my family’s land, their home, for the rest of their lives.” He grew up speaking Yiddish and remembers his parents taking English lessons at night at the local community hall to prepare them for citizenship.
Max was at the University of Wisconsin on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. He joined the army and ultimately trained and served as a sniper in the 99th Battalion. He recounted how his life changed on December 15, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. It was brutal and overwhelming. Max writes: “The ground shook as hundreds of tanks rumbled forward with astonishing speed, leaving death and destruction behind.” There was chaos as the American line broke. Max’s unit was wiped out but, as a sniper, he was separated from them. He ran into the juggernaut. Hit and run, then escape again to shoot and run and hide. He ultimately was taken as a prisoner of war. Luckily, Max had lost his dog tags, for the people identified as Jewish were killed. Life was miserable. They were made to clear the roads of mines, and ultimately were marched into Germany. He writes: “The villagers came out of their houses and shops to gawk at us and taunt us. Some would throw old fruit or stale bread.”
They were put on a train, which was harrowing, and taken to a prisoner of war camp. Max ultimately served as a laborer. He tells the story of a group of Russian prisoners who, upon hearing that Max and his group had not eaten, divided what they had with Max’s group. He writes: “We were all so thankful. With tears in our eyes, we hugged each one to show them our appreciation.” There was an unsuccessful escape attempt, but as the war’s end approached, Max succeeded in escaping the camp, only to be recaptured by the Germans.
And it is here where an extraordinary friendship began. Walking around the camp, he passed a German lieutenant, who had a sling on his arm, several times. The first few times, they nodded when they passed each other, then one morning Max said: “Guten Morgen,” (Good morning.) The German officer acknowledged this with a clearly understood “Thank You.”
“You speak English?”
“Yes, of course. We all learn English in our schools.”
“Where were you hurt?”
“I was shot down over Russia and am lucky to be alive. I am recovering on my grandmother’s farm.”
“My name is Max Gendelman. I come from a city in America called Milwaukee, a good German city.”
“Yes, we all know about Milwaukee. My name is Karl Kirschner. My grandparents’ name is Fisher, my mother’s parents. They own this farm.”
Then he asked, “Max, do you play chess?”
“Would you like to play chess with me?” They arranged to meet in a nearby barn and began to play chess. Max left the barracks after the guards retired and crawled under a corner of the fence that Max had lifted up.
On that night, Karl explained, “Max, my mother and my grandmother both know and approve of our meeting. My grandmother has prepared some sandwiches for you. I also have cognac that I saved for a special occasion and a few good cigars for us to enjoy. So let’s eat, and drink, and play chess.”
And they became friends. A reporter long after the war asked Max if it ever seemed strange to have befriended a ‘so-called enemy.’ Max writes: “It was never about ‘the enemy’ between Karl and me; it wasn’t about the uniform that we wore. If I had felt Karl had been a true Nazi we would not have become friends — and thank God, Karl didn’t see me as a threat either. And maybe it had to do with our ages. I was twenty-one, he was nineteen. Maybe we were naïve but more than that, we were able to be truthful with our own feelings. And the truth was simple. We saw in each other an immediate connection, a brother.”
Max recounted their first conversation: “Karl, Germans and Americans are mostly good people, who live and love and eat and sleep and have wonderful families. We were not born to grow into manhood and face the task of killing other human beings, or to die in battle on some foreign land. I do not cherish the thought that I had to kill, and I’m sure that most German soldiers also feel the same. Could we shake hands, not as two forlorn soldiers on a field of battle, but as two young men cast together by some unseen force, who respect each other as individuals and who longed for friendship and peace?’ I put out my hand. Karl took it and we both shook hands; we saluted each other, drank our cognac and vowed for a long and true friendship.”
And then they played chess. They kept meeting and eating and playing chess. They talked about their lives, their homes, their families, and their shared interests. Karl’s father had been both an elementary and a secondary school teacher; he taught biology. And in order for him to continue to teach, Karl explained he had to join the Nazi Party. His voice trailed off.
They heard the Russian tanks and Max urged his friend to flee, knowing what would happen to a German officer and pilot captured by the Russians. They decided together to try to find American forces so Karl could become a “friendly ward of the Americans.” Then Max told him that he was a Jew, and that if they were caught by Germans, Karl would be in danger. Karl was quiet for a long time. He turned and looked Max in the eyes and said, “It makes no difference.” Later he said, “Max, I’ve felt for some time that you were not German, but Jewish…. I am content in knowing and feeling that I have made a good lifelong friend in you, regardless of how long that life is, and I feel sure that you must feel the same. Our friendship and our strong-willed desire for freedom will see us through.” There was a pause. Max took Karl’s hand, swallowed hard, and said, “Yes, thank you.”
Karl shared his father’s upset at what happened during Kristallnacht and the start of the persecution of the German Jews, many of whom were his old friends and students. His father continued teaching Jewish students at their home. He was caught doing this and reprimanded. He lost his right to teach, and was forced to enter the German Army. He also lost his pension and was lucky to be left alive. Karl explained, “My father was forlorn, but he knew he did the right thing, even considering the harsh penalties that were imposed on him. So you see, once again, we have so much in common. Do you agree?”
Max replied “Karl, I do agree. Whatever happens, we are one.”
Their escape is another whole story. When they were caught by German patrols, Karl said he was escorting two prisoners. There were bombings, interrogations, near death moments, and then they found the American army; Karl was taken away. Both men were interrogated for their association as the war eventually ended.
Karl was always on Max’s mind. He had no idea how to find him. Max moved around. He finished his education. He got married, became a CPA. In December 1950, he got a letter from Karl. Karl became a doctor and Max encouraged him, and loaned him funds to have his internship in America. Karl interned at Mercy Hospital in San Diego. They shared stories of what happened after the war. Six years after the war ended, after more twists and turns, they reunited. They had learned each other’s stories in deeper ways, ways that can only be shared with a trusted friend who knows you intimately. Karl shared about pilot training and what happened during the war. There was a bond that men who served share. They talked regularly, ending each conversation with: “I Love You, my brother.”
Karl ended up as a doctor in San Luis Obispo. The rest of the book tells of their friendship, sharing vulnerabilities, deep truths, family stories. Karl apologized all his life for the atrocities that his country did during the war, and their slaughter of over six million Jews. He prohibited German from being spoken with his family. He loved being an American citizen. He felt God had given him a new life as well as a new country to live in.
They were there for each other in difficult times. Max was with Karl before he died in 2009 and told him of the family request to write the story of how a German officer and an American Jewish POW became friends. Karl nodded and his eyes teared. He understood. His lips moved. His words were barely above a whisper but they were clear, “Max, I love you.”
Here is how Max ends his book: “I probably will never live to see the day when all nations will learn to live together in peace. One must hope that they learn or their world, and all of ours, will also cease. This should never happen! My dear parents and sister have left me. Their memories have never left. My main success is in my wonderful, devoted family, one that I am so lucky to have, a family that has been my blessing, my inspiration, my goal. My dearest friend, Karl, has left me. War is a reminder of ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ but it is also a reminder of man’s ability to care for each other. May we care for each other always.