POF-Schissler2Final“John is a renaissance man,” said his wife Barbara. “His friends are always telling him that.”

John Schissler has spent a lifetime as an educator, is a master of complex languages, was an original force for organized youth soccer in Milwaukee, and even trained an Olympian (Floyd Heard) who beat Carl Lewis twice, and holds the world record in the 4 x 200 meter team relay.

He has also raised a developmentally delayed son, Adam Schissler, who was Easter Seals Poster Child in 1981. Adam graduated from Hamilton High School, and has spent 17 years with the Exceptional Chorus song and dance group.

Schissler spent his early life as a WWII refugee, and he has devoted much of the last decade assembling his family’s story into a narrative, which he recently self-published: “Passage: The Making of an American Family.”

John Schissler Jr.

Age: 67

Occupation: Retired teacher

Parish: St. Matthias, Milwaukee

Book recently read: “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue,” by Paul Woodruff

Favorite movie: Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” starring Colin Firth

Favorite quotation: “When I was 16, I thought my father was an idiot. Now that I’m 21, it’s surprising how much he learned in five years.” – Mark Twain
(Catholic Herald photo by Willy Thorn)

Schissler’s German family lived in Yugoslavia when the war broke out. Opposed to Nazis and the war, they went on the lam – racing across central Europe, surviving in a Russian labor camp and homesteading in West Germany – before making their way to Ellis Island and Milwaukee.

The book is an “untold history,” shared by many, Schissler said. War crimes didn’t end with the war, he noted. Many people were driven from their homes, and ended up as prisoners of war or fleuchtlinge (refugees) in the new Eastern Bloc.

“There were plenty of subhuman conditions under the Russians both during and after the war,” he said. “I had lots of relatives who died then – womb to tomb.”

Faith kept family together

Schissler credits his mother’s strong faith with keeping the family together through the ordeal.

“She was a strong German Catholic,” he said. “We wouldn’t have made it without her.”

When the war broke out, Schissler’s father and mother packed him up and left their home in Yugoslavia. 

“The family story was that my father wasn’t fit for service,” he said. “But part of writing this book is that I was forced to re-envision and rewrite family history. My father was basically a draft dodger. Turns out he took something to make himself sick.”

During their escape, Schissler’s younger sister was born in a bed of straw on a train, he said, noting that the train was fired upon by British Spitfire, and eventually crashed.

They spent nine months in a Russian-run camp in Kaisersteinbruch, southeast of Vienna where 10,000 of the 30,000 people died.

“The only way my sister lived was by the grace of a Russian nurse, who put cod liver oil on her lips every day,” he explained. “My parents gave us drugs to keep us quiet and help us sleep. It was poppy tea – an opiate.”

Conditions were deplorable, he described, noting there were 30 people in a single room.

“The rats would bite at your wrists. We had scabbies – everyone would itch uncontrollably. My uncle had asthma and coughed, wheezed and hacked all through the night, every night,” he described.

Eventually they escaped to a palace (estate) on a hill in Warburg, Germany, which he described as a medieval, cobblestone castle.
“We stayed there until we were smuggled across the border to West Germany,” he said. “The (West German) government at that time forced refugees into the homes of other Germans. We ended up with a ‘farmer’ – really more of a rich homesteader. His family had owned the land since the 1400s. He wasn’t too happy when my family of six showed up, and then became seven. But my parents helped with the pigs, horses and all the acres.”

Life in America

Even though Milwaukee has a proud German heritage, “I was ashamed. I told people I was Croatian,” said the Juneau High school alumnus. “I refused to play soccer. It was all baseball for me, like the other American boys. I was leading a double life, attending sock hops and eating George Webb’s burgers – and then stopping at home for palachinka – Austrian crepes.”

The turning point came in 1963, with John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” declaration in Alexanderplatz, West Berlin.

“And that was it. If it’s good enough for our Catholic president, it’s good enough for me,” Schissler said. “I actually majored in German after that, at UWM. Though, at first, it was only to get my grades up.”

It was at UWM that the book was born – as a 15-page essay for a class assignment. Although encouraged to do more with it, he shelved the work.
The publishing process

“At my brother’s urging I revisited the story,” said Schissler, who taught English, German and Latin at John Marshall High School.

After retiring, he did research and wrote for three years.
“The most important collaborator was my cousin, Hans Geibl. He was with us all the way to the U.S., but he remembered more than I did, since he’s significantly older,” Schissler said. “He actually returned to Europe and visited the whole route; took photos and all that. I got him on videotape talking about it. I also talked to my 95-year old mother, and got videotape of her, my aunt, uncles, sisterand brother all talking about their experiences.”

Saved, thanks to ‘the Archangel”

Willy Thorn
Special to your Catholic Herald

Faith has been a constant in the Schissler family, John Schissler learned as he researched his family’s story for his recently self-published book, “Passage: The Making of an American Family.”

“So many things have come full circle,” Schissler said. “I really look at St. Michael the Archangel as a prime example.”

The family only made it out of East Germany because “we were saved by Max Latasek, a Czechoslovak man,” he said. “He led us across the border into West Germany dressed as a hobo. He brought so many cartons of cigarettes and bottles of alcohol, the border guards actually helped move some of the more elderly refugees. Everybody called him ‘the Archangel.’”

The family’s first parish in Milwaukee was St. Michael.

“I was an altar boy. My greatest religious experience was there. It was Midnight Mass, I was carrying the lantern. The darkness and candles. And when sister hit the key pipes and that first rumble echoed through the church, how can you not be moved? That stays with me still.”

“I loved Latin, especially in Gregorian chants,” he said. “The Mass’ Latin began a lifelong love of the language, which I initially pursued in high school. I also loved serving Mass. I even considered becoming a priest. But instead, I decided to take a vow of poverty – I became a teacher.”

Schissler and his wife, Barbara, were married at the parish.

“The Archangel has always been a part of my life,” he said.

He researched baptismal and death records, passports and immigration records, including the original passenger list from the SS (Steamship) Washington on which the family traveled, and took six trips to Germany where he took notes and shot photographs and video.

“Then I started writing,” he said. “Since I was wrestling with the duplicity of humankind, it can be heavy,” he said. “I worked in comic relief to kind of lighten it.  I also settled on chapter titles from my Catholic background: Contrition, Absolution, Reconciliation, Communion and Revelation. Even the title, I dedicated to the Surviving Innocents – an allusion to Herod.”

He credited his wife, who provided ideas and read what he wrote with giving him the determination – “that gentle nudge,” Schissler termed it – to follow through with the project.

“I spent one whole summer out on the porch with my wife,” he said. “She would read it to me aloud. I closed my eyes and listened for repetition, redundancy and alliteration. Hearing it that way … I shed tears, almost every day. It was very difficult at times, but also a catharsis for me; very, very bittersweet.”

Schissler self-published the book under the Xlibris label and received his initial box of author’s copies on his birthday – June 24, 2009.

Book being marketed locally, internationally

He is now focused on marketing both locally and internationally. He was part of a speaker series sponsored by the friends of the Auswandererhaus, an immigrant museum in Bremerhaven, near Munich. Locally, he’s also done readings at local bookstores, visited some literacy classes and went to Project STAY, in Milwaukee – a high school for at-risk kids and Rufus King High School.
The book, he noted proudly, is now an official curriculum offering in the Milwaukee Public School system as two sets of the book are being purchased for history classes at John Marshall.

It’s at the Ellis Island Library (in New York), UWM’s Golda Meir library, UW-Madison’s central library, the Jewish Museum on Prospect Avenue, Milwaukee Public Library, and is available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.