U.S. serviceman with Austrian roots to deliver Memorial Day address
VERGENNES — George Jaeger’s service to his country started when he was 18, operating a mortar during World War II. It would later include acting as an interpreter in a war crimes investigation team as the horrors of the Holocaust were made visible to the world and for, 35 years, working in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Next Monday, Jaeger plans to draw on these experiences in a keynote speech at the Memorial Day Parade and Observance in Vergennes.
Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1926, the early rumblings of nationalism in Germany were of little concern until the German annexation of Austria in 1938. The son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Jaeger witnessed the aftermath of the Kristallnacht, the “Night of the Broken Glass,” when paramilitary forces and gangs looted and burned Jewish neighborhoods, synagogues and businesses. The event is referred to by some historians as the start of the Holocaust.
With the help of a Quaker organization in England, Jaeger left Austria. He still remembers the moment he and a car of other children fleeing the Nazis arrived at the border with Holland: A group of friendly Dutch women boarded the train with pots of hot chocolate and baked goods.
“It was like heaven had opened up,” he said. “We were hungry, starved, and dirty and didn’t know how this would end. We ate like pigs.”
Jaeger continued to Norfolk, England, where he learned to speak English and attended school while living in a private estate.
“My lederhosen were replaced with flannel pants,” he said.
In 1940, he traveled to Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father — an established painter and art professor in Vienna — then worked as a custodian (his mother would not rejoin them until after the war). He was 12 years old and often gave speeches to encourage the public to buy war bonds.
He was drafted at 18 and went through accelerated basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama. In the winter of 1944, he joined 5,000 troops in crossing the North Atlantic to provide reinforcements for Allied troops in Europe.
On a spring day in 1945, Jaeger was resting in a pile of hay in a Belgian barn when an officer in full dress uniform — called “pinks” because of the color of their trousers — arrived. He called Jaeger out and informed him that since he could speak German, he’d been selected as an interpreter for a war crimes investigation team, which searched for German war criminals as the Nazi army retreated.
“We spent a lot of time driving around looking for people who weren’t there,” he said. “It was a confusing world that was going in so many different directions. You would go to an address and the house would be rubble.”
On an errand near the German town of Hadamar in the spring of 1945, Jaeger was approached by a man who claimed to be a French intelligence officer who said he needed to show Jaeger something immediately.
What the intelligence officer showed him appeared to be a hospital, and staff there reported they were caring for disabled patients, disoriented elderly persons from bombed out areas, “half Jewish” children from welfare institutions, disabled forced laborers and soldiers deemed “incurable.” The facility was actually part of a Nazi euthanasia program that killed off prisoners through lethal doses of medication or abuse. The bodies were buried in mass graves nearby.
Jaeger and his unit radioed for infantry support, which surrounded and opened the camp. The ensuing trial was the first mass atrocity trial in the U.S.-controlled zone of Germany. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that during its operation between 1941 and 1945, some 14,420 people were murdered at the site Jaeger and his comrades discovered.
Jaeger and his unit would later go to the opening of the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria near the Czech border, where he saw piles of naked and frozen corpses and skeletal figures packed into barracks. The stench of urine and death was overpowering, Jaeger remembers more than six decades later.
“It was the most degrading place I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” he said. “When you’re 18 that’s a lot to absorb.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates 97,000 prisoners passed through Flossenbürg between 1938 and 1945. An estimated 30,000 prisoners died in Flossenbürg and its subcamps, including 3,315 Jews.
Jaeger then joined the 14th Armored Division as it entered what Czechoslovakia. Crowds greeted the Americans as liberators. On a bike ride in the area around the Czech town of Pilzen, he encountered a column of Nazi tanks, which surrendered to him immediately. His account of this story, which appeared in the Addison Independent earlier this month, is stored in the Library of Congress.
After the war ended in the Pacific theater, Jaeger returned home to New York City. A stranger on the street saw him in uniform and offered to buy him breakfast.
“America was united, proud of its soldiers and relieved the war was over,” Jaeger said. “America was not divided.”
Jaeger returned to school, finished his degree and continued at Harvard for post-graduate studies where he attended the International and Global Affairs program. Future foreign policy advisers Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were in classes ahead of him. He took the Foreign Service exam and entered the service in Washington, D.C., collaborating with other government bodies on reports assessing the United States’ interests in foreign countries. It was a job that would take him to places such as Monrovia, Liberia.
When asked what he enjoyed most about his job, he said the process of understanding other cultures.
“It’s a great experience to sit next to a tribal chief who is telling you about his problems with running a village, and you realize they’re not too far different from the selectboard here in Middlebury,” he said in an interview last week. “There is community, conflict and resolution. Sometimes they win, other times they lose.”
In 1989, Jaeger took a position at Middlebury College as diplomat in residence and retired in 1991.
Today, at age 89, he continues to be a keen observer of U.S. foreign policy and global affairs. In the current election cycle, he maintains the relationship between the world’s three leading superpowers — the United States, China and Russia — is at a critical point, with each jockeying for a competitive edge against the other two.
“There’s an inherent conflict between the notion of international law and perceived national interests,” he said. “It takes two to tango and the party is getting a little bit dicey.”
In his speech at the Vergennes Memorial Day ceremony, he intends to touch on these issues, “very gingerly.”
“Memorial Day is our expression of a fundamental need to honor those who fought for us,” he said. “This goes way back in our human history. People fight and die for human causes and it’s good for people’s souls to honor them.”
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