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Can you tell us about your liberation?
I'm in Ebensee, after we’d marched from Linz all the way to Ebensee, three days, three nights. It’s the middle of April '45. All the body strength that I had gained being in the Packetstelle is gone. Now I'm skin over bones. I work in the tunnels. The Germans were building tunnels in the mountains where they had factories. I was one of the peons, one of the laborers. Slave laborers.
On Friday, the fourth of May - last Monday was my liberation day, the 6th of May - on Friday, all of the prisoners in that camp were ordered to the Roll Call Square, as it's called, an Appellplatz. And all of the SS are there, and the soldiers have machine guns around their shoulders. The camp commander is there, and he starts a speech in German to us, saying that the Americans are coming this direction, and for our own protection he wants us to go into one of the tunnels because the SS is going to fight to the death and he doesn't want us to be in the crossfire.
Those of us who understood German, all began to shout, “No, we won't go! No, we won't go!” So then he had it translated in all the languages of people that were in that camp, which was French, Italian, Yugoslav, all the other languages, and each time, when the guy came to the end where he said, “We want you to go into the tunnel,” you could hear, "Niet! Niet! Non! Nee!." No! No!” All of these different “no’s” were shouting up, and the SS stood there absolutely baffled. No body had ever done that to them. No shooting took place and we didn't have to go to work that day. Later on we found out that the underground in the camp had heard from one of the officers that the idea had been to fill a locomotive full of dynamite, put it in front of the tunnel and blow it to pieces, and hopefully the blast would kill all of us inside. Later on they did find that locomotive totally loaded with TNT.
Saturday we wake up and the SS who were going to fight till the end against the Americans, they all had disappeared. And Saturday we were there, all by ourselves. The two guards out front, people who were my age now, in their late 70's. Everybody went crazy! “Hey, we're out! They're gone! They're gone!” And on Sunday, flags of all the nations, began to appear on the fence that overlooked the valley of that camp, of all the prisoners, all these national flags appeared. And I don't know where they came from so fast. But they had gone into the SS barrack and took all the linens, and dyed them or sewed them together.And so on Sunday, it was late afternoon, we heard noise that I could not identify. And outside the camp, the roads were all cobblestones, and you could hear"rrrr..r.r.rrrr...rrrrr..rrrrrrr..." coming up the hill. All of a sudden two tanks appear in front of the gate and they open the gate. Two tanks and a jeep came in, and that was my liberation.
To this day I am friends with the guys that liberated me. I go, whenever I can, to the reunions every year. I am a member of the unit now, and on Monday I called the sergeant who was in charge of the first tank, who is still alive - the Sergeant of the second tank died a few years ago - and I called him up on Monday and I said, “Bob, thank you again.” Every year I call him and say thank you, and every time we see each other. And they've been with me on tours to Europe that I've organized. In 1990 I took two bus loads of the men of the Third Cavalry, with their wives, to Europe. I organized the whole trip. We took them to Ebensee, and to all the other places, and to this day they keep saying that was the best thing that ever happened to us, what you did.
After your liberation, how did you end up in the US?
One of the colonels, whom I’d met after the liberation, got interested in me. And on the night that he left Germany to come home to Buffalo, NY, they had given him a farewell party at the Officers Club. I was taking him to the railway station with one of his orderlies, and he said, “I'm going to get you to the United States." I said, “Thank you, Colonel, that's very nice of you.” The next day I saw another officer, and I said, “Jesse, guess what Arthur told me last night? He was so drunk he must not remember what he told me.” He said, “Why?” “He said he told me he was going to get me into the United States.” He said, “Max, sit down,” and I said, “What’s the matter?” and he said, “Sit down.” And this was a Captain. “Arthur and I have talked about this. Arthur wants me to keep my eye on you. He's going to send you an affidavit to come to the United States, and I am to be your guardian until you go.” I said, “You are putting me on.”(Nobody used that phrase in those days). He said, “No, Max.” Dead serious. And I said, “But he was drunk.” And he said, “He may have been drunk then, but when he was talking to me, he was dead sober.”
Sure enough I got an affidavit later on. President Truman, I don't know if you have studied that, but there were a lot of DP camps, displaced persons camps, all over Germany and Austria, and in 1946, I believe it was in January, President Truman gave a presidential order, an executive order, that allowed 45,000 or 35,000 displaced persons to come to the United States without having to go through the formality of immigration procedures. And I am one of the lucky ones.
That's how I got here. And I got here on the 30th of September, 1946, and I retired from my architectural practice on the 30th of September 1986, 40 years after my arrival, having become a fully licensed architect, in California, who has built his own practice, my wife and I, and still going strong on 2nd street with about 20 employees.
What was the trip like coming to the US?
Horrible! I was on a Liberty Ship and the last four or five days we were in the middle of a storm. I stood there on the railing, puking, puking, puking, thinking to myself, I'm going to drown in the middle of this ocean; after all I've been through, I'm going to go down the drain here! And it was horrible. But I arrived, and when I saw the Statue of Liberty that morning after arriving, sitting in the harbor overnight, the Empire State came out of a fog bank, that was hanging, that had descended over New York City, and you could only see the tall buildings, and it was like coming into a dream world. It was unbelievable! Whatever we had left in our bottles of Cognac, we passed around and said, “Good luck to us all!"
Did it take you a long time to adjust to the surroundings of freedom.
I began to appreciate the freedom in Germany, after liberation. But the freedom that I know of, that I can speak of, that I have lived, is a gift that I hope, for the rest of your lives, you will fight for. It is unique. To be able to tell somebody to go kiss off and do what you want to do is an exceptional feeling. Take my word for it. Live it. Believe me, its worth it.
Then it became a very easy task to go out to talk about it, and to be invited to schools. Right now, I'm invited to come to Northwestern University and to talk about this very subject again, because they are putting on a big exhibit at the Block Museum at Northwestern University.
There are whole portions that I haven't even talked to you about in the few hours that we've had here. It’s easier, but not very, at times, as you probably have noticed. I mean, it’s not easy. But I do it because I want you people to not ever have to live it, and that when you see something like that happening to other people, that you will stand up and say, “No I will not let this happen!” You will hear of me; I will fight for everybody's right to be free. Because once you put a star on or whatever other symbol it is, you are no longer free. That's my message: be free, remain free and fight for the other guy’s freedom, because if he or she isn't free, you’re not free.
We read that after you were liberated and came to the United States you denied that you were Jewish.
Yea, I denied being Jewish
Was it because you thought it would happen again:
No. I didn't want my children, if I had children, to be persecuted all over again. My Sephardic Jewishness meant that this had happened back in the 1500’s, and here it was the 1900’s, 400 years apart, and I didn't want that to happen. I said enough is enough of this crap. And then I took sick in San Francisco, and there used to be a Mount Zion hospital, on Divisadaro and Post. Perhaps one of your parents may know about it, if one of your parents is a doctor and Jewish they may have practiced there.
And I took sick and I went to that hospital, the doctor put me in there. And in those days - this was about 1955 - from the janitor in that building, to the most dedicated surgeon - from the people in the kitchen to the one who brought you food - they were all Jewish. Everybody was Jewish. And I got well and I didn't want to leave! I felt like I was at home. And the nurses said, “Max, anytime you want to come back, come back.” And that's when I said, “I'm Jewish.”
Can you explain real quickly how you came about to write this book.
I didn't, my wife did. My wife was going to write the story of my life for my children. This was '75. My children are now 45, 42 and 41. So we started in ‘75, which is 27 years ago. Pat said we got to write this down for the kids and the grandchildren. Nobody was married then. So we thought it was going to be a simple story. And then when she got into it and there was a hard session. There were no computers in those days, remember, everything was on a typewriter. You made a mistake you had to white it out - do it over- you had to crank it to a copy machine - all that crap.
She said, “Max, this is going to be a book.” And she would sit me down on the couch at home on Saturdays and badger me and badger me. And she became a psychiatrist! And I would throw things at her, and say, “Stop already! I've had it!” And the book came out. It became easier then to talk about it. I really went through a psychiatric experience getting this out, or telling it to my wife.