After Robert Max enlisted in the United States Army in 1943, he was given a choice to make that ultimately cast a terrible mark on much of his life.
Max, a jazz musician who played alto saxophone and clarinet, was offered a chair in an U.S. Army band. Instead, he opted to join a combat unit. It proved to be a near-fatal decision.
“I saw my buddies being shipped out,” Max told NJJN. “I had just turned 20, and I knew what I was going into with Hitler’s war against the Jews. I would have felt guilty if I had spent the entire time with the band. My conscience was ignited and told me, ‘No. You can’t spend the war with the band.’ It was a pretty much spontaneous decision.”
But, he conceded, “if I were 10 years older and had a family, I might have made a different choice.”
Over the course of 137 pages in his newly issued memoir, “The Long March Home: An American Soldier’s Life as a Nazi Slave Laborer,” Max tells the gripping story of his life, focusing mainly on the painful memories of his months as a prisoner of war who was held captive in brutally harsh conditions by cruel members of Hitler’s army.
The book, awaiting publication, is being circulated privately by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. A reception in honor of Max will be held at federation headquarters on the Aidekman campus in Whippany in mid-September.
“It is a story that has never been told before, and I am the only person who can tell it, because I am the only person who was a slave laborer for the Nazis who is still alive,” said the 94-year-old veteran at his home in Summit.
Sitting a few feet from a dining room table covered with photographs and personal memorabilia from his war years, Max estimated that he was among “a couple of dozen” American soldiers who were not registered as POWs and were forced as slave laborers to repair German railroad tracks that had been damaged by Allied air attacks (although the captives did manage at times to sabotage the lines). Max was among the very few who escaped.
He writes in a style that invites the reader to imagine just a portion of the unendurable pain he suffered, from the massive infections, frostbite, and malnutrition he sustained during his time in captivity. With equal strength he conveys his determination to stay alive despite the severe odds against his survival.
For someone who faced far worse treatment than the average World War II combat veteran, Max experienced a few incidents of incredible good fortune.
On one occasion before their capture during the Battle of the Bulge, Max and his comrades encountered an English-speaking German officer who chose not to follow orders to kill them but instead threatened them with imprisonment.
The result: Although he escaped death, he was subjected to treatment not in accordance with the rules of the Geneva Conventions. He and his buddies instead were forced into slave labor, were fed minimal portions of barely edible food, and were compelled to work and march without overcoats in the brutally cold winter of 1945.
But that disastrous fate was accompanied by a piece of good fortune. Had he been a registered POW he would have been forced to show his captors the identifying dog tag American GIs wore around their necks. In Max’s case, a mezuzah and a star of David were on the chain as well as his military ID. But the German soldiers never spotted the signs of his Jewish identity.
During the 68 days of his imprisonment, he writes, “[t]he unending slave labor and marching continued to deplete my energy and strength. I knew that if I dropped out, as I had seen others do, I’d either be shot or left to die.”
At one point, he writes, “Pain raged through my body, from head to foot. My emotions were torn by the realization that I could do nothing to relieve the pain. Nor could I envision an end to this kind of torment, and I thought about death. How long before the starvation and exposure would take my life?”
On top of everything else, his right foot became so swollen from frostbite that he could no longer wear his boot. He took it off, hid it from the Nazis, and replaced it with a scarf in a desperate attempt to keep his foot warm.
To compensate for his many miseries, Max writes, he would lie awake on the frozen ground, fantasizing about the foods he craved — 84 different kinds. Among them were meat (kosher and non-kosher), date and nut bread, and the one item he called “Mama’s specialty” — cherry Jell-O pie.
At last, Max saw a way out. Away from the guards’ line of sight, he used finger signals to two of his fellow prisoners, and led them in leaping over a low row of hedges. Other prisoners closed ranks during their forced march so that their captors would not spot the three vacancies in the prisoners’ ranks.
Unable to walk, Max crawled and stumbled alongside his buddies into a town called Reichenbach. There, the three escapees approached a house and knocked on the door — where they had the incredible luck to find members of a German family who were friendly to the Americans and risked their own lives to assist them in hiding.
Max’s older brother Lester became a family hero by keeping tabs on Max’s status among the servicemen listed as missing. As a member of an Army communications unit, Lester was the one to discover that his brother was alive and safe in Allied hands. “I am so happy I could cry,” Lester wrote to his “Mom & Pop” in New Jersey on April 26, 1945 — 22 days after his brother found freedom.
Max underwent nearly a year of hospitalization in Belgium, France, and Staten Island, then was assigned to two weeks at the fabled Grossinger’s Catskills Mountains resort, whose owners invited soldiers to enjoy a period of rest and relaxation — and sumptuous meals — to speed their healing after the harsh conditions of combat and imprisonment.
More than 70 years later, Max writes that “the stories of combat and captivity, the deprivations of life’s offerings, and my near-death encounters greatly influenced my urge to devote my postwar years to meeting human needs through personal service.”
He continues to play a vital role in the Greater MetroWest Jewish community and beyond, having served as president of the State Association of Jewish Federations and the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey. In addition, he has chaired the state’s Israel Bonds campaign and was among the founders of Congregation Beth Hatikvah, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Summit.
Near the end of his book, Max recites a litany of real experiences that he “cannot conceive” actually happened. Among them were times when his endurance and survival instincts were tested most — in the freezing cold of the Ardennes Forest with American artillery shells exploding around him, six days of “animalistic behavior, insanity, and death in a German boxcar,” contrasting these incidents with the kindness of a German soldier before his capture and a family of German civilians who protected him after his escape.
Like many authors, Max has given thought to a movie version of his story. Asked whom he might like to be cast in the lead role, he paused for a moment, then smiled.
“If he were still alive I’d go for Mickey Rooney.”