How Max Schickler survived the war | German-Jewish cultural heritage in Ukraine | DW | 29.11.2012
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How Max Schickler survived the war

Max Schickler is one of the last German-speaking Jews in Chernivtsi. He lived through the Rumanian pre-war period, the brief Soviet interregnum in 1940, and the Nazi invasion.

Max Schickler's life got off to a modest start. He was born in a local village in 1919. Being a bright young boy, when the time came, his parents sent him to live with an aunt in Chernivtsi so that he could attend the local grammar school.

But history dictated that that was as far as his education would go. "I finished school, but Jews from Bukovina were not allowed to attend university," Schickler explains.

The Rumanian students were almost all members of the Iron Guard fascist movement, and they treated the Jews badly. He recalls the case of a Rumanian fascist who murdered a Jewish student but was never held accountable.

When he realized he was not going to be allowed to study and that it was not possible to transfer to Vienna or Prague, as many Chernivtsi Jews had done in the past, he decided to start working at the Herkules sock factory.

The university grounds in in Czernowitz, Ukraine in September, 2012 Copyright: DW/Birgit Görtz

The university gardens are Max Schickler's favorite place in Chernivtsi

The factory belonged to a distant relative of his, and he stayed there until the summer of 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

"At the outbreak of war, a group of about 100 of us youths decided to walk eastwards to escape the fascists," he says. They covered 20 kilometers of ground each day, walking a total of 450 kilometers to Uman in central Ukraine.

Survival strategies

"When we got to Uman, we were sent to the front on Stalin's orders," Schickler recalls. "He had grown suspicious of people from western Ukraine and sent us to a work battalion. But we were lazy."

Schickler remembers the youngsters from Lemberg always being up to something, including stealing from the station as a way of improving their standard of living.

In Saratov, Schickler's battalion had to assist with the deportation of Volga Germans. "Those who were sent to Kazakhstan survived, but the ones who were sent north perished."

Because there were so many prisoners of war, Schickler's German language skills were in great demand. "They needed us to register the prisoners and make up card files on them."

When the Front moved closer, the unit was transferred from Saratov to Gorky, known today as Nizhny Novgorod, where Schickler again worked as an interpreter in POW camps.

"The German prisoners were better fed than the soldiers," he explains. "There was no doubt about that."

To China and back

In 1944, Schickler was sent to central Asia, to the Chinese border. Weapons had been confiscated from Wehrmacht soldiers and were being passed to the Chinese communists.

"At that time, the Soviet Union officially supported Chiang Kai-shek, but the German weapons were secretly given to Mao."

Schickler spent two years on the Chinese border, and didn't return home until he was demobilized in 1946.

Back in Chernivtsi, he started work at the Herkules factory - which, like so many Soviet era companies, is now defunct - and married a woman he laconically describes as "cantankerous."

Max Schickler pictured in September 2012 in Czernowitz, Ukraine Copyright: DW/Birgit Görtz

Max Schickler in Czernowitz, September 2012

He remembers her being argumentative, and explains that after seven years, he had had enough of her and of the idea of marriage.

His siblings had long since immigrated to Israel, and although he had been there and traveled around from the Golan Heights to the Syrian border, to Eilat on the Red Sea, he decided to stay in Chernivtsi.

From there he could indulge his great passion for mountain walking. Over time, he organized rambling trips for factory workers to the nearby Carpathian Mountains.

Together they completed and marked three 100 kilometer hikes, and although he no longer walks them himself, the path markers are still there.

These days, the 93-year-old, who is blind in one eye, ventures into the city every day for lunch in a restaurant where impoverished members of the Jewish community get a warm meal for nothing.

And as he explains that he did, after all, help to bring tourism to the Carpathians, the wholly modest Max Schickler swells with pride.

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