An impressive military uniform displaying a Purple Heart and other medals of valor, dog tags with the Star of David on them, war-time letters to his parents and pictures chronicling the life an American hero…it’s all part of the new exhibit at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark titled The Long March Home: A World War II Story.
The exhibit depicts the true story of WWII veteran, Robert R. Max, who was born in Newark. Bob left a comfortable college life to enlist in the United States Army at the age of 20 in 1942. He fought in three major battle campaigns across Europe before he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and was forced into Nazi slave labor. He eventually escaped, recovered from his injuries, and has dedicated his life to being a leader in business, education and humanitarian efforts.
It was Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who inspired Max to never forget the horrors he experienced. Bob Max would eventually write his book The Long March Home in 2017, dedicating it to the memory of his wife Shirley. They were married for 67 years.
WBGO News Director Doug Doyle recently visited the 96-year old Bob Max at his home in Summit, New Jersey.
Max says when he was captured behind enemy lines he had some luck on his side. The Nazi soldier who was pointing his gun in Max's back spoke English.
"I said 'What will you do with me?'. To my absolute surprise he responds in almost perfect English. Along the way he said 'You fought well today, you killcd many of our men but you fought well.' He was showing me admiration for battle. He had been ordered earlier to take no American prisoners alive. He should have shot me at that point. I assumed when he reached down he was going for his pistol. Instead he pulls out of his pocket a wallet. He opens the wallet. He shows me a picture of his family. He has a young teenage son. He looks at me and he looks at his son. He looks at me and he looks back at his son. We never discussed this but I was absolutely certain what he saw was an American boy, I had just turned 20, not much different than his son. From that point on the conversation turned very positive.
That soldier was going to send Max to a POW camp, but that plan never materialized. The young Army soldier was eventually taken to a site as a Nazi slave laborer. Max would endure icy cold temperatures and faced starvation while working to rebuild Nazi railroads blown up by American and British forces. Max says he and others there relished in a united effort to sabotage the railroad reconstruction.
"You could be shot at any time. You couldn't even look and smile at each other. You would get a rap in the back but I did look through the corner of my eye and see what some of the men were doing and they were pretty smart. As we filled the craters created by the bombs that American and British planes had dropped, we were to fill those bombing areas and get those trains running again. We could sabotage it with the dirt we put in. The way we put the bottom layers in. You knew that the track would not be sustained when a train came over that. Others were doing things with the tracks when they put them together. For a very short period we had joy and glee even under those conditions. Pure sabotage."
Eventually, Max would escape by running away from the site. He would need nearly a year of hospitalization to recover from his injuries. He had lost more than 65 pounds and nearly froze to death.
After the war and when he returned to college he would meet Shirley. Max says she was a true partner in life and business. Shirley Max passed away in 2015.
Bob has used his successful business skills to become a leader in the Jewish community and has spent many years talking to students about his story.
The Newark native, who grew up mostly in South Orange, has always been a man of many talents. After enlisting in the Army, he quickly became a member of the Fort Dix Swing Band. The established clarinetist and saxophonist would frequently visit the Paramount and Adams Theaters in Newark to see the famous band leaders like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Max was given a choice to stay in the Fort Dix Swing Band and not head to combat duty. But the choice was clear for him.
"The leader of the band, Jack Leonard, was a singer with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He came to Fort Dix as did so many of the top musicians in America. All volunteered. It was Jack Leonard who then intervened on my behalf, unknown to me. My name appeared on a list to be shipped out to be trained for combat. Jack had my name withdrawn and I was called into the office."
Leonard told Max he was needed and wanted him to stay with the band. Max declined saying all his buddies were going off to war and that's where he belonged too.
What's Max favorite part of the new exhibit? His dog tags.
"On my dogs tags was the letter "H" stamped into it. If you were Jewish it was either a "J" or "H" for Hebrew. When I got my dog tags at Fort Dix I attached to them a Star of David. I was young. I was defiant. Even though I was going into Nazi Germany where Adolph Hitler had declared war on the Jewish people I decided I was not going to avoid my Jewishness. We were told as we entered combat that if you are Jewish and you are captured to throw away your dog tags but I was young. I was idealistic and I wore them."
You can find out more information about the exhibit by going to the New Jersey Historical Society website.