Author of tumultuous memoir fondly recalls days in SaukvilleThe dramatic twists and turns that have marked John Schissler Jr.’s life could fill a book.
In fact, they do.
The harrowing experiences that followed his family’s immigration from war-torn Eastern Europe to Wisconsin are recounted in an autobiographical volume titled “Passage: The Making of an American Family.”
Schissler describes the book as “a true story about an ordinary, World War II European family who was forced to embark on an extraordinary odyssey fraught with danger, disease, and death to reach the shores of the ‘Promised Land.’”
The book recounts how the family faced danger and death, including being shot at by British planes, imprisoned by the Russians, and forced to work in the peat bogs of East Germany, before finally escaping to West Germany, and then embarking
to Ellis Island in New York.
Although the settings of the family’s history cover two continents, the section of the book that traces Schissler’s idyllic days as a youth in Saukville are likely to have the most interest for local readers.
He and his family — his parents, a brother and a sister — arrived here when Schissler was just 7, moving in with his great-uncle and aunt, John and Elizabeth Scholl.
“I have very, very fond recollections of the time my family spent in Saukville. I remember attending my first movie, ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers,’ in the gym at Immaculate Conception School and watching the wonderful Fourth of July parade through downtown,” Schissler said.
After a few months, the family settled into a wood frame house next to the old fire station on North Mill Street.
“Whenever the fire bell would sound, the whole house would shake. And every spring, the Milwaukee River would flood in our back yard,” Schissler said.
“What I remember most was the sense of freedom I had there. When we would get out of school, I felt such joy I would just run and run, it felt so good to be free.”
He recalled how some local residents were distrustful of the family, with accusations of being Nazis or communists common.
“We were living in a tight-knit, working-class conservative community in the early ’50s, and being emigrants from the communist country of Yugoslavia didn’t exactly endear us either … we were considered by some of the townspeople to be part of the Red Menace,” Schissler said.
Schissler was born in 1943 in the war-ravaged region of Yugoslavia now known as Croatia.
His family and all those around them struggled with the oppression of the Nazi occupying forces during World War II, followed by the iron-fist rule of Stalin’s Soviet regime. Ever on the move, the disenfranchised family struggled through the scarred countryside and villages after the war.
“We knew nothing about what the Nazis were doing when we lived in Yugoslavia, and most people don’t know about the atrocities committed under Stalin because history is written by the victors,” Schissler said.
“I tried to be as brutally honest as I could. I consider the book to be an indictment of war, all war. I think about the senselessness of war and it strikes me, like reading ‘All’s Quiet on the Western Front’ about World War I in the original German, with all of the subtlety of that translation. The dedication of my book is to all the surviving innocents of the war.”
With tales of hardship and charity along the way, the book traces the family’s migration to America, the land of promise.
The book was “born” from an autobiographical essay Schissler wrote in his U.S. history class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1964.
From there, the volume took on a life of its own, thanks to Schissler’s painstaking historical research and an insistence that the job had to be done right.
“I originally intended to write a simple memoir for my family because many of them only knew bits and pieces of our history. Then a friend of mine who had written two historical novels said I should add some historical context and write a book,”
Schissler said it took 2-1/2 years of writing and re-writing to complete what he admitted was a very emotional project.
“When the galley of the book was done, I had my wife read it out loud to me, and every time we got to certain sections, tears would flow from my eyes,” he said.
Schissler’s is a classic American success story. He came to America as an immigrant child who spoke virtually no English and went on to a 32-year career as a teacher and coach at John Marshall High School in Milwaukee, retiring in 2000.
“My background helped me a lot as a teacher. When students, even the ones born here, would have trouble with English, I would say, ‘If I can learn the language, you can,’” Schissler said.
He now lives in Milwaukee.
His book is available at local book stores and at Amazon.com, where several favorable on-line reviews have been filed.
AUTHOR JOHN SISSLER JR. stood in front of the house he lived in on North Mill Street in Saukville, shortly after his family emigrated from war-torn Europe. An account of the odyssey is the subject of Sissler’s book, “Passage: The Making of an American Family.” Photo by Mark Jaeger