Three Malibu residents-a German, a Polish Jew and an American soldier -all of whom survived World War II, are friends 60 years later.
By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor
Wolfgang Knauer, Herb Kolischer and Ernie Masler make up a trio that, at the conclusion of the European Theater of World War II-60 years ago this week-most would think was impossible. Knauer, 79, was a German soldier in the conflict, Masler, 82, fought against the Germans for the United States and Kolischer, 81, survived more than two years as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. But today, the three are best friends living in Malibu’s Horizon Hills.
Knauer and Kolischer’s friendship did not begin immediately. The two met nearly 30 years ago when Kolischer, now a retired architect, and Knauer, now a retired physicist from HRL Laboratories, became active in their homeowners association. Knauer said he was cautious about approaching Kolischer, wanting to be sensitive about the situation. His decision turned out to be the correct one as Kolischer said he was at first uneasy about forming any relationship.
“I didn’t know how to make it more comfortable for me,” Kolischer said. “But in time, I overcame this. It doesn’t mean I forgot what harm was done. But there are certain things you just let go.”
Kolischer said what made the situation less difficult was that Knauer was not a former SS officer or Nazi official. Rather, he had been a young boy forced into the Hitler Youth at age 10 and moved into the military in 1943 just shy of his 17th birthday.
“It doesn’t seem that he was offending or being a willing participant in the Holocaust,” Kolischer said. “He was just a young fellow who was forced out of his home and forced to do things that he had to do to survive.”
Knauer did not even see combat until late 1944. And the fighting in which he was involved were minor clashes in Austria and Czechoslovakia against the Soviets.
When the war ended, Knauer was captured by the Soviet military in Czechoslovakia and forced to join a prisoner’s march. But he was able to escape from the march and fled to a nearby forest. With several other deserters, Knauer had to find a way to get out of Czechoslovakia, which was hostile territory for him.
“The Czechs had taken up arms,” Knauer said. “They would shoot any German because they had been treated so poorly during the war.”
In his first attempt to escape from the forest, the Czechs did fire at Knauer and the others. But Knauer was eventually able to make it to Austria. There, American soldiers took him home to Tuebingen, Germany.
Knauer said when he learned of the horrors his nation had done during the war to the Jewish people and others, he was horrified. “It was a terrible thing,” he said.
Kolischer said he is glad that Knauer recognizes the evil that was done by the Nazis. “It means something to me that he’s willing to accept that part of the responsibility. I don’t mean he’s personally responsible for it. But he definitely carries this burden that the German people carry.”
Kolischer was sent to Auschwitz in late 1942, where he remained until January 1945. He said he never expected to leave the camp alive. The SS officers regularly told the prisoners that the only way out was “through the crematorium chimney.”
As the Soviets were approaching the camp, the Nazis led the remaining prisoners from Auschwitz on a long march. They were eventually sent to a concentration camp in Germany. Later, Kolischer was sent to an area to dig tunnels by hand for the German V-2 rockets.
“Food was a bare minimum,” Kolischer said. “It was deep in the winter time. We didn’t have proper clothing. It was a terrible condition.”
Later, Kolischer and other prisoners were supposed to go on another march toward an unknown destination. But Kolischer knew he could not go any farther. “My feet were frost-bitten. I had lost an awful lot of weight-I weighed probably 70 pounds. I was a skeleton. I practically couldn’t walk.”
Not caring if a Nazi officer shot him, an exhausted Kolischer lay in a ditch to avoid the march. But he was not shot, and 10 minutes later everybody was gone. Kolischer said he guesses he was not killed because the Nazis believed he was already dead.
After traveling through several villages looking for clothing and food with mixed success, Kolischer was eventually discovered by American soldiers, who sent him to a hospital.
As their friendship increased, Knauer and Kolischer exchanged more stories of their lives during World War II. In the 1990s, they added Ernie Masler, a retired psychiatrist, to their inner circle when he moved to the neighborhood.
The American World War II veteran was involved in the war during the final months of the European conflict. He said he remembers how the American soldiers thought of their German counterparts as being less than human. But Masler, who spent some time among the German civilians at the end of the war, said he and his fellow soldiers were able to see these Germans as humans.
“You can’t help seeing the humanity of another person when you get close to him and get to see him,” Masler said.
Masler said it troubles him that many people in the world are still unable to see the humanity in others, as he pointed to racial and ethnic violence that occurs around the world today. Although he said he is not optimistic about the world because of the many examples of cruelty, he said his relationship with Kolischer and Knauer gives him a little hope for the future.
And now the three friends, whose relationship would have been inconceivable 60 years ago, are working together to help their neighborhood be safer during the fire season.
They recently acquired a federal grant of $52,000 that will pay for brush clearing, tree pruning and goats that will eat excess grass.
“This is a remarkable thing that people can live together and get to know each other,” Knauer said. “There is no reason why somebody, for ethnic reasons or otherwise, should be your enemy.”