As he looks toward his 90th birthday on July 10, and thinks about this week’s 68th anniversary of VE Day — commemorating the Nazis’ surrender to Allied forces on May 7, 1945 — and his narrow escape from death in World War II, Robert Max attributes his survival to a series of what may be seen as “miracles” — or at least highly unusual circumstances.
Max, a Summit resident who often discusses his army experiences with adult and student audiences, began considering such quirks of fate after one recent speaking engagement.
“People came up to me and started talking about ‘miracles,’” he told NJ Jewish News in an April 18 phone interview. Their focus brought to mind a series of unanticipated consequences that allowed Max to survive the horrors of a Nazi slave labor camp.
As a 20-year-old private first class in the U.S. Army’s Sixth Armored Infantry Division, Max was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.
He could easily have been shot to death, Max said, but he remained alive because of the actions of a German sergeant whom he terms a “humanitarian.”
Max and five other GIs had volunteered for a dangerous mission, moving behind enemy lines to reestablish radio contact with the bulk of their unit, when they were captured by German troops. Among their captors was an English-speaking sergeant who, said Max, “respected military valor.”
The German soldier told him, “‘You fought gallantly and killed many of our men,’” said Max. “Then he opened up his wallet and showed me a picture of his children and said, ‘For you, the war is over.’ I figured he was going to shoot me. But he called over two guards and” — although the Germans had been ordered to let no prisoners remain alive — “they threw me into slave labor instead.
“This was an absolute humanitarian gesture.”
That it did not seem to matter to his captors that Max was Jewish was another of the “miracles” of his survival. “I was a young guy then. I was defiant. I knew there was a war against the Jews going on, and I was a Jew and I was not going to deny it.”
Max said he wore a miniature mezuza and a magen David and had a ‘J’ stamped on his dogtags. If his captors ever asked, he said, “I would have opened my shirt and said, ‘This is what I am.’ That’s youth.”
During 90 days in captivity Max and his fellow prisoners slept outdoors and had barely any food. He was beaten savagely and force-marched in winter to a slave labor camp.
Although he had lost 45 pounds, Max and two weakened comrades summoned the strength to flee.
As far as his family knew, he was missing in action and presumed dead. But another of his life’s “miracles” came to pass. His brother Lester was a company clerk in another unit, and all communications in that unit passed through him, said Max. “When I finally got to a field hospital in Belgium and they reported my name and serial number, Lester was the first soldier to be informed. His letter to my parents arrived before the government’s did. That was a wonderful thing. They had assumed I was dead.”
Max spent the next 10 months hospitalized, recovering from frostbite and a severe infection.
More coincidences surfaced 50 years later, when Max became a founder of Congregation Beth Hatikvah, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Summit.
On Veterans’ Day 1995, three members who had been in World War II got up to tell the congregation about their experiences. One of them, said Max, “had been assistant director of internal medicine at Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island. I was in a private room there, and he was my doctor.”
Another veteran at the synagogue was a radioman in a unit near where Max had been fighting. “If he had been in our unit there would not have been a need to reestablish contact and I never would have become a prisoner,” he said.
For the past several decades, Max has been an avid supporter of the Greater MetroWest community, a synagogue leader, and an active past president of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey.
He and his wife, Shirley, have been married for 65 years. They have two children, Wendy and Douglas, and five grandchildren.