Early Life

Army Induction, Training and Overseas Deployment

Going Ashore in Normandy

Early Combat Experience

Capture

Slave Labor

Escape and Rescue

Recovery, Back to School and Getting Married

Writing a Book and Eli Weisel

Recognitions

Reflections

Annotation

Robert Max was born in July 1923 and spent his early life in the Vailsburg section of Newark, New Jersey. The neighborhood housed people of various extractions, but very few Jewish families. Max never witnessed any acts of anti-Semitism there; in fact, Max was actively engaged in athletics with mostly Christian children. They were on such friendly terms that he invited them to his first Bar Mitzvah and they came. They stood up and cheered when Max completed his speech, which wasn't done, and disturbed Max's parents, but Max forgave them. In reciprocity, Max attended midnight mass in their Christian church. Each respected the others' faith, and they got along well. In his mid-teens, the family moved to South Orange, New Jersey, and once again it was a mixed neighborhood with no inter-religious friction. The Max family lived two doors from a house occupied by Christian nuns, right off the campus of Seton Hall University. While Max was away at war, the nuns often inquired about his well-being. Max's mother was of French descent; his father's family came from Poland. As the oldest of five brothers who had inherited the family business, Max's father was president of a small retail milk company. Theirs was a lower middle-income family, and they rarely experienced any luxuries. Although young, Max was sensitive to the fact that the Great Depression was a dreadful period for many people. His own family didn't really suffer, however, because everyone still needed milk. Max remembers reading about the war in Europe in the "New York Times" during his freshman year at New York University, but he didn't feel that newspaper was very forthcoming with information on the Holocaust. He said that learning what was happening to the Jews probably had some effect on his volunteering for service as early as he was eligible.

Annotation

Robert Max transferred to Ohio University for his sophomore year of college because the commute was easier and the school was rated third best in journalism. It was 1941 and young men were highly attuned to the war. During bull sessions in their lodgings, Max realized the members of his fraternity were subliminally influencing one another. They wondered what they were doing at university when the country was under attack on two fronts. Max signed up in October 1942. He chose the Army because he had been a member of the ROTC [Annotator's Note: Reserve Officer Training Corps], and although he learned ROTC was a far cry from the actual military life, it was an introduction, and he felt naturally oriented to that branch of service. Max didn't think he'd be happy in the infantry, so he applied for flight school and was accepted. But as things got worse in Germany, his flight training ended. He knew he was going to be a soldier on the ground. Inducted at Fort Dix, Max was called into the office of Jack Leonard, a big band vocalist, whose acts preceded performances by the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. Leonard arranged a pass for Max to go home for his alto sax and clarinet so he could be in the band. Max no longer had routine duties like KP or patrol. He was free to play music. He quite likely could have remained a musician throughout the war, but when his name came up for basic training, he insisted on seeing real Army life. He was sent to Fort McClellan, Alabama, known then as the Hellhole of the South. To Max it was a nice camp, but the training by mostly old World War I Army vets was rough. That tough training was probably responsible for saving his life later. He was then sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana where he was trained for combat in the 106th Infantry Division and assigned to the Motor Pool. Max knew nothing about internal combustion engines or automobiles, but, he said, "that's the way the Army liked it." The recruits had no bad habits and were trained in the Army way. Max drove Jeeps and got to know some of the high-ranking officers that he chauffeured. He then went to Fort Meade, Maryland and was soon on board the Mauretania, a big British luxury liner bound for the European Theater. The fact that the British were willing to use that kind of ship showed Max how the Americans, and the British in particular, had thrown themselves into the war. He remembers that there was scarcely an American who didn't want to play a part in the endeavor. Everybody was doing something.

Annotation

While Robert Max was on the Mauretania, zig zagging across the Atlantic, he knew there were German submarines in the area, yet there were no close calls on his passage. When the ship arrived in Liverpool, there were people standing on the dock holding up newspapers with headlines that read "Mauretania Sunk." With their safe arrival, some reporter had been denied that scoop. Max attributes it to his youth, but even at that point he did not yet feel apprehension. Soon he was traveling across the English Channel in a Liberty Ship and transferred to an LST [Annotator's Note: Landing Ship, Tank]. He felt excitement at the experience. While the men were climbing down the rope ladder between the two vessels, the ships would bang together, and some soldiers got squeezed in between. Max placed his feet very carefully and got down safely. A friend of Max's from New York brought a camera and asked Max to pose for a picture when they approached the Normandy beaches. When Max was waist high in water, he threw his arms out, and just before the two were separated, the photographer took the snapshot. After the war, when that friend was an advertising executive, Max asked about the picture. Sorry, was the reply, the photo was lost. Max's troop came under heavy fire at Omaha Beach. The men were rushing past cannons that were firing on those coming ashore. When he got to the top of the ridge and looked back, he froze. He knows why the number of casualties were so high on D-Day [Annotator's Note: 6 June 1944]. Max was re-assigned to the 9th Battalion [Annotator's Note: 9th Armored Infantry Battalion], 6th Armored Division. He traveled on half-tracks that had wheels in front, tracks in back, and could move troops quickly over difficult terrain. It was when they moved inland that Max came to grips with the reality of war. His notion of combat being a game of cops and robbers was gone.

Annotation

Robert Max realized this was now a struggle for life. Bogged down for short time at Saint-Lo, his troop took off by half-track and moved quickly on. Their next encounter with the enemy was strange: the Germans were dropping their guns and surrendering. Max had the unsubstantiated impression that the Germans gave up because they had heard they would be sent to a POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] camp in America and have a good life there. The next memorable event was really tough combat during the Battle of Han-sur-Nied. The 6th [Annotator's Note: 6th Armored Division] had to cross a river in an area the Germans had just evacuated. Ahead of them, the enemy was zeroed in on the bridge with shell and small arms fire. To dodge the incoming heavy artillery, the half-tracks pulled off the road and under the trees for shelter. Though Max was not totally fearful, he knew the situation was dangerous. The troops got out and sought cover under the half-tracks. Max, on the ground in the rear of the vehicle, could wave at the guys in the front. That behavior seems weird in his mind to this day. But when he saw bodies carried away on stretchers, he came to the sober realization that they still had to cross that bridge. Their progress required some difficult decision by the commanders. They were trained for this. [Annotator's Note: On 11 and 12 November 1944, the 6th Armored Division crossed the Nied River against strong opposition, reaching the German border on 6 December, and established and maintained defensive positions in the vicinity of Saarbrucken.] Max felt he had good commanders. There was loss of life, but the plan was well executed. Patton [Annotator's Note: US Army Lieutenant General George S. Patton] was commended for that campaign. Max carried the lessons of that battle into business after the war: develop a strategy and then execute that strategy. From that point the 6th Armored Division had only minor engagements as they continued further east.

Annotation

Robert Max vividly remembered 16 December 1944, day one of the Battle of the Bulge, as the Germans' final major effort at retaliation. Max was in a forward unit in the Ardennes Forrest. They were under heavy fire, but he had been ordered to fall back for food and rest when he heard a call for volunteers. The company [Annotator's Note: Max was a member of Company A, 9th Armored Infantry Battalion, 6th Armored Division] had lost radio contact, and it was necessary to reach another American troop. Max saw a jeep, commandeered it, and with five other soldiers took off down the road. They didn't get very far. Out of the dark mist appeared a tank-like vehicle with a mounted 88mm cannon directed at their jeep. Max jammed on the brakes and turned off the road to get out of range. The men bailed out of the jeep and ran toward a nearby shack, hotly pursued by small arms fire. One man had the presence of mind to dismantle the machine gun from the jeep, and took it along. One soldier was killed during their flight. The machine gun was set up in a bay window, but within two minutes the gunner was killed. Acting out of battle readiness, Max took over the machine gun, and kept the enemy at bay the rest of the day. They were facing more than a hundred enemy troops shooting from covered foxholes. Max learned later that he had hit and killed many of them. Two more of Max's patrol were hit defending the shack's other window. The tiny patrol fought until they ran out of ammunition. They decided to hide in the shack's cellar, and planned to come out during the next night and infiltrate through the German line. But the Germans, getting no resistance, came across the road, into the shack, and tapped on the cellar door. Max opened it, and still remembers the ring of black automatic gun muzzles contrasted against the white snow camouflage suits of their German captors. They motioned for the Americans to come out. Max never learned what became of the others. A sergeant put a rifle in Max's back and pushed him across the road. Allied artillery started hitting trees, and heavy burning metal was pouring down. The sergeant jumped into a foxhole, but would not let Max join him; Max was exposed to the shell blasts. Max couldn't believe his good luck when he discovered that the sergeant spoke English, and he struck up a conversation that probably saved his life. Max said this encounter was a story of humanity during the horror of warfare. The German asked why Max was there; it wasn't his war. Max responded that the Germans made it his war. Max inquired what the sergeant planned to do with him, to which the German replied that Max had to be killed. Max had been a sprinter in school, and was ready to take off, but a burning tank brightly lighted the field and road, and every bunker had a machine gun, so it was impossible for him to escape. The German sergeant said that for Max, the war was over, and he reached down. Max thought the man was going for a pistol, but the sergeant produced a wallet with a picture of his family. In that photo was a teenager, and Max got the feeling that his own light hair and blue eyes reminded the sergeant of his boy. At this point the Germans were not taking prisoners, but the sergeant told Max he was sending him to a prisoner of war camp. Max was reported missing in action. An official report was sent to his parents stating that if further details became available, they would be advised. [Annotator's Note: Throughout this section, Max repeatedly wipes his brow with his hands.] Months went by and Max's family began to assume that he was dead.

Annotation

Robert Max believes the German sergeant truly thought he was sending Max to a camp where the Geneva Convention was observed. But somewhere along the route, Max was stopped and a senior officer changed his destination, which turned out to be a slave labor camp. His coat and gloves were taken away; there was no shelter or food, and the prisoners slept on snow and ice for 82 out of the next 90 nights. Max sustained himself by keeping his toes and fingers moving, and conjuring up visions and odors of 84 foods that he memorized into what he called his little round book. Without those physical and mental precautions Max is sure he would have frozen or starved to death. Daily activity at the labor camp began every morning with the order to get up. [Annotator's Note: Max shouts the words "Raus! Raus!", German for "Out!"]. If a prisoner didn't move, he got a rifle his back; those who couldn't move were left there to die or shot on the spot. Max was a witness to some of these shootings. Their work was to rebuild the railroads that had been bombed. Every day they went someplace where there were tracks. Sometimes they had to carry heavy iron tracks on their bony and bruised shoulders from one town to another. Some prisoners could not make it. At the risk of their lives, however, the prisoners were sabotaging the repair efforts with little tricks of misalignment. Somehow, even though they were not allowed to talk, word got around as to how it could be done so that no train would ever be able to travel on those tracks again without being derailed. Max made no connections with anyone else in the camp. Each man took care of himself, and tried to remain alive, and although they looked upon one another as comrades, they didn't become buddies. The Allies had regrouped and were driving the Germans further east, so prisoners had to be moved. They packed 75 to 80 prisoners into cattle cars, stacked body against body. Once a day they were thrown pieces of dark brown bread, and only those who scrambled fast enough got crumbs. They were in that horrible atmosphere for six days and nights, with no toilet facilities. Some men became mentally deranged, some died. The doors were eventually opened, and the prisoners taken out to begin a forced march.

Annotation

Robert Max was not going to participate in the forced march. His right foot, inflamed with trench foot or frostbite, was so painful he would have screamed, but knew he would have been shot if he did. He got his shoe off, and wrapped his foot with his scarf. The road the prisoners set out on curved severely, and Max arranged with two other American soldiers to make a break when the guards were safely around a corner. Max crawled and walked back in the direction their train had traveled, all the while hoping that their absence wouldn't be discovered. Max believes that his fellow prisoners closed ranks to cover for the missing men, because no one came back to look for the escapees. When they reached the little village of Riechenbach, Germany, there were German tanks and soldiers preparing to go to the front: it was a Nazi staging area. Through a clearing Max spied a white house, which he instinctively felt would be safe. The three Americans made their way there and knocked on the door. The elderly man of the house smiled when he saw Max's jacket with the United States emblem, and taking the prisoners quickly inside, he motioned to his wife. She saw the state of the prisoners and brought them hot soup with meat in it. Max just wanted to savor it. [Annotator's Note: Max closed his eyes, cupped his hands and raised them toward his face.] The couple spoke English and as they ate, the prisoners talked with them about a wonderful trip they had taken to Pittsburgh, and how highly they regarded America and its people. The German couple risked their lives by giving the prisoners refuge in their home. [Annotator's Note: Max spoke very warmly about the interchange with this couple.] Moreover, Max had been in the wilderness for months, and the sight of carpets, lamps, and art on walls reassured him that there were still civilized people in the world. The old folks drew a map for the prisoners, and showed them the way to a barn where they could rest and hide. Exhausting their remaining strength, the three Americans climbed into the hayloft. When it was time for the morning milking, a German soldier in his long white underwear, black trousers and boots, might have blown their cover, but remained unaware of the trespassers. That night the town was astir, as the German troops pulled out. The next day, Max was peeking through the cracks of the barn and saw men in helmets that were not German. He thought he might be delusional, but when he saw a jeep with a white star on its hood, he knew he was right. It was the third division of Patton's [Annotator's Note: US Army Lieutenant General George S. Patton] Third Army. The arriving soldiers pulled out all the food they had, but the starving bodies of the prisoners couldn't take very much. Max got very sick after eating a little chocolate.

Annotation

From that point on Robert Max became somewhat delirious. He was taken to a field hospital where doctors were working under terrible conditions. The bottom of Max's right foot had to be removed to prevent the likely loss of his leg. He moved between hospitals in Liege, Belgium; Paris, France; and upstate New York; ending up in Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island in New York. He was desperately underweight. Among the special privileges he got as an atrocity survivor was a restorative stay in Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel that catered to mostly Jewish people and served great kosher food. He had lived through the worst treatment any soldier could experience: starvation, hard labor, exposure to the elements, and he bore witness to a great deal of death. He felt Americans were very generous in giving him recognition and care. Max's early days in hospital were very difficult. He was unrecognizable, even to his parents. When they came to the hospital, they passed by his private room, because the man they saw there had nothing but bristles for hair, his cheeks were sunken, and his mouth hung open. But he received great treatment from a team of doctors, and all the prescription medicine he needed. Years later, he chanced to meet the head of this team of doctors at a founders meeting for a new religious congregation. Both he and the doctor were among the three World War 2 survivors participating. The two men compared their dates and memories, and Max knew he'd found the doctor that saved his life. The most sensitive and significant event to come out of his recovery was his marriage. He decided to resume his education, and returned to Ohio University where he was hailed as a war hero. He was doing radio interviews, and a talk with Stan Lomax was picked up in Athens, Ohio, and playing in the headquarters of the Hillel International Foundation for Jewish Campus Life on a Saturday afternoon when he returned to school. Shirley Biller, the girl who would become his wife, ran that organization. Thus began their 67-year partnership.

Annotation

Robert Max thinks back with satisfaction on his life because he follows through on Eli Wiesel's mantra of "Never Forget". He thanks his wife Shirley and his editor Heidi von Schrieger [Annotator's Note: unsure of spelling] for guiding his life. He decided to write about his experience in the Battle of the Bulge: the roughest, toughest, bloodiest battle in American wartime history, because nobody had told the story of surviving slave labor. He took the opportunity to offer an item of interest to the American people, but also to add to the journals of American history. [Annotator's Note: Robert Max wrote and published "The Long March Home: An American Soldier's Life as a Nazi Slave Laborer."] He has devoted his life to talking with youngsters, so they will know and remember, and so that part of history is preserved. Max's enthusiasm for the book was also fueled by his grandchildren's curiosity. They asked about where he slept, what he ate, whether he carried a gun, shot people, or killed anybody. He thought back to the weekend he and Shirley spent with Wiesel and his rabbi. Wiesel was eloquent, a linguist and author of many books, carrying his message so well that everyone was impressed. Max knew that he and his wife would help carry out his mission. Wiesel would only agree to appear if he could speak to the children. The auditorium was filled, though there were few Jewish students in the audience. A young girl said she got the feeling that he did not fully relate how bad his experience was in the concentration camp. His reply was that he could not tell it as bad as it was. Wiesel spoke on the danger of indifference, stating that people like Adolf Hitler could succeed because nobody moved. At the end of Wiesel's talk, there was silence in the room. Then one person started to clap, soon the room was resounding and the audience was on its feet, cheering about his powerful lesson on humanity.

Annotation

Robert Max does not believe he suffered any lasting effects from the war in terms of shell shock, but says it has been pointed out to him that he had a ten month transition period during his recuperation in which to work it out. Through sleepless nights, Max came to realize the truth of what so many people had observed: that it was a miracle that he lived through it all. He recognized that when something like that happens, "you gotta make something of it." He is dedicated to helping other people accept their past, and has formed organizations that help older people reclaim memories of earlier years. Max subscribes to Victor Frankl's concept that man's purpose in life is to show others how to find their mission. As the tale of a psychiatrist, and fellow prisoner of war and survivor of atrocities, Frankl's was a book Max read while writing his own.

Annotation

Robert Max's most memorable experience of World War 2 was learning that his parents got the news that he was still alive from his brother. When at first Max's MIA [Annotator's Note: Missing in Action] status appeared on communications to all the troops in the area, Max's brother put out the word that he wanted to know as soon as Max's name appeared again. When it was reported that Max was in hospital and under good medical care, his brother was duly alerted and sent word to their parents. Max decided to fight and serve in World War 2 because he was young and eligible, and because he was moved by knowledge of the slaughter being heaped upon the Jewish people. These were his people. And America was engaged in a war on two fronts, which could possibly have been the end of America as we know it. If it was an American war, it was his war and he didn't hesitate much to sign on. When asked what his service means to him today, Max responded that it means just about everything. That episode shaped his life; without it he would never have done the things he did in public life, nor would he have met his wife, with whom he had 67 great years. The experience shaped his destiny. Max feels that today, World War 2 is held as a shining light, what this nation can be when tested. He feels that, unfortunately, America is a far cry from that today. But, he thinks, it is possible for America to be rallied again. During the war, everyone felt American, and people were willing to pledge their life and their money. Max notes that the American people partially funded the war with bonds. It was a great America then. Max is absolutely sure of the importance of institutions like The National WWII Museum. He said we must learn from our past, and that America would be a poorer country without the ability to look back on what shaped this nation.

All oral histories featured on this site are available to license. The videos will be delivered via mail as Hi Definition video on DVD/DVDs or via file transfer. You may receive the oral history in its entirety but will be free to use only the specific clips that you requested. Please contact the Museum at digitalcollections@nationalww2museum.org if you are interested in licensing this content. Please allow up to four weeks for file delivery or delivery of the DVD to your postal address.