MONTGOMERY: Holocaust survivors present a strong message to students

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By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
Even when it looks like you may not survive until tomorrow, you have to keep hoping and fighting.
And if you do survive, do not allow your past experiences to make you bitter but instead, go on to make life better for all.
That is the message that two survivors of the Holocaust – the concerted effort by the Nazis to wipe out Jews and other “undesirables” – delivered to Montgomery High School freshmen and juniors.
Gerda Bikales, who was born in Germany, and former U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Max, who was born in Newark, N.J., spoke to the students in a program brought to the high school by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest. The federation covers five New Jersey counties, including parts of Somerset County.
Setting the stage for the presentation, Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, told the students that genocide – whether it is focused on Jews or on other groups – is still very much alive.
Anti-Semitism, which is prejudice against Jews, is still prevalent, Wind said. It has no basis in fact. It is based on malice. Nor does prejudice end with the Jews, she said, pointing out that radical Muslims are killing other Muslims.
“We are here to inspire you to work against anti-Semitism,” Wind said.
Bikales and Max, who are both Jewish, brought very different stories to the students.
Bikales and her mother, along with a friend, fled from country to country as they tried to stay one step ahead of the Nazis while Max, the American soldier, was captured in battle and sent to a slave labor camp.
The Holocaust is part and parcel of World War II and cannot be separated from it, Bikales said. The Holocaust was designed to kill Jews, “and kill they did,” she said. Of the 6 million Jews who were killed, about 1.5 million were children.
“I am the exception (to the children who were killed). I survived,” said Bikales, who was 7 years old when her father left the family for the United States in 1938, hoping to bring over his wife and daughter later.
Life was good for Bikales and her parents in the years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust. She was born in Breslau, Germany, and life was comfortable – until the Nazis came into power.
The Jews became marginalized – they could not work, they were taxed, any debts owed to them by Germans were canceled, and if they owned a business, they had to sell it to a German.
Recognizing the deteriorating conditions, Bikales’ father left Germany for the United States in 1938. Neither she nor her mother had visas and could not follow him. As the situation worsened, they tried to stay one step ahead of the Nazis and fled from country to country across Europe. They had several close calls, she said.
Later in the war, arrangements were made to send her to Switzerland, which was a neutral country, Bikales said. She stayed in a boarding school until World War II ended and she was reunited with her mother.
“The world seemed so new to me, and full of possibilities,” Bikales said.
Bikales and her mother were reunited with her father in the United States, but it was not a successful reunion. Nevertheless, they had all survived – whether on the run, or safe in the United States.
But Max, the American soldier who was captured by the Germans, had a different story to tell the students.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army and was shipped off to Europe. He was captured when his unit became separated from the Allied forces on Dec. 16, 1944.
Max and several soldiers volunteered to go out and scout around to find the location of the battle lines. The soldiers, who were in a Jeep, came to a bend in the road and found themselves face-to-face with a Nazi tank.
They fled and found shelter in an abandoned house, but the Nazis caught them even as they tried to fight back. Max was taken to a Nazi sergeant.
When Max asked the sergeant what would happen to him, the sergeant – who spoke English – said he would have to kill him. But Max engaged the sergeant in conversation. The sergeant took out his wallet and showed Max a photograph of his son, who was also a Nazi soldier.
The sergeant’s son was about the same age as Max, and had blonde hair and blue eyes. Max had light brown hair and blue eyes, and there was some resemblance to the sergeant’s son.
The Nazi sergeant softened his stance and sent him to a slave labor camp. It was not much of a favor, because of the harsh conditions. The Nazis took away the soldier’s winter clothing.
Fortunately, the Nazis did not see Max’s dog tags, which indicated that he was Jewish. He would likely have been killed on the spot or sent to a concentration camp.
Meanwhile, the prisoners were sent on a forced march in the middle of winter, Max said. They slept on the ground and had very little food. He was starving and began to sense that death was imminent. All around him, the men were dying.
“I had to think of something to give me hope,” Max said. He began to think about the food that his mother used to prepare, and that is what sustained him emotionally and psychologically.
At the slave labor camp, the prisoners were forced to work on the railroad tracks. They found ways to sabotage them by not putting in all of the spikes to hold them together, he said.
Aware of the approaching Allied soldiers, the Nazis put the prisoners on another forced march. This time, Max and two other soldiers made their escape. They found refuge with an elderly man and his wife, who risked their own lives to save the soldiers.
Max and his companions were rescued by American soldiers who were passing by in a Jeep. Max had lost weight – from 155 pounds to 88 pounds when he was rescued. He spent nearly a year in the hospital, recovering from his ordeal.
“I had many sleepless nights (after being freed). I had survived when I should not have survived. There must be a reason,” said Max, who is now 94 years old. He decided to devote his life to philanthropy and to see the goodness in others.
Wrapping up her remarks during the question-and-answer session that followed their presentation, Bikales urged the students not to take a passive role and to speak up when deniers claim the Holocaust never took place.
“You are among the very last people to interact directly with Holocaust survivors, and this imposes a very heavy burden on your young shoulders,” said Bikales, who is 86 years old.
“There are people out there who will deny it every happened. They say it was a plot by the Jews, but you, of course, will know better. Speak up and do not sit there in silence. You know it happened,” she said.
“By speaking up, I hope we will avoid it happening again,” Bikales said.