WWII vet shares his experiences with students
I stood on the sidewalk, surrounded by wildly cheering Viennese just as the top Nazi leaders — Hitler, Goebbels and Göring — were driving by in open cars, giving the Hitler salute to the ecstatic crowds.
— George Jaeger
After a full year of studying religion, the students at the North Branch School experienced a rare and special gift in the person of George Jaeger, 95, of Middlebury.
Jaeger, a retired Foreign Service Officer and former Diplomat in Residence at Middlebury College, visited the grades 7-9 Ripton school to talk about his experiences of surviving the Holocaust, and his work as a war crimes investigator during World War II.
For an hour and a half, he held the class rapt and spellbound. With his quiet and clear voice, he proceeded to draw the entire room of teachers and students into a most magical, heartbreaking, mesmerizing and inspirational tale.
“I am the luckiest man alive in Vermont, and by all accounts, I should not be here,” he began. He then launched into his story, starting with a sketch of Austrian society in the 1920s, and of Vienna, where he was born.
“It was a very different, more hierarchical, class-structured world than the one you are growing up in,” he said to the students and teachers ringed around him. “The decision as to who made it into university, for example, was essentially made at the age of 10 when students could take the tough entrance exam to gymnasium — the eight-year secondary school which was the door to university and professional careers.”
It was in his second year of gymnasium that Jaeger, the son of Catholic parents (although his father’s family was Jewish), witnessed the “Anschluss,” the 1938 Nazi annexation of Austria.
“One day, as I turned a corner on one of Vienna’s major avenues on my way home from school, I abruptly came upon the German Army marching into Vienna. I stood on the sidewalk, surrounded by wildly cheering Viennese just as the top Nazi leaders — Hitler, Goebbels and Göring — were driving by in open cars, giving the Hitler salute to the ecstatic crowds. They were as far from me as I am from you here.”
As he spoke, the students sat riveted, occasionally asking clarifying questions.
“I’ve heard a few Holocaust survivors speak,” said Leila Stillman-Utterback. “But I thought about something new this time: Every single survivor and every single one of the millions who died has their very own unique story.”
Jaeger explained how, since he had two Jewish grandparents, he immediately became a target of the Hitler Youth, who harassed, chased and once even tried to drown him. His most deeply felt experience was the murder of his uncle, who was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, subjected to medical experiments, and died almost immediately after his release.
He also witnessed Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” when Jewish businesses and synagogues were burned and Jewish shopkeepers had their stores destroyed and were forced to scrub swastikas off the sidewalk while being kicked and jeered.
Large numbers of Viennese Jews were soon being transported to concentration camps. “I could see gray columns of them out of our window being marched off, with no one offering to help.” At the same time, most of his father’s aged relatives were hauled off and died in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the Nazi-occupied part of Czechoslovakia.
The danger and fear around young George and his family was growing rapidly.
Help came from an unexpected quarter. At the instigation of the English Quakers, the British Parliament passed a law allowing 10,000 at-risk Austrian and German children to take refuge in England. Jaeger was one of these very lucky children.
He said goodbye to his parents in November 1938 and was put on a train that took him to safety and another life.
“I have a confession,” he said. “I was not afraid. I feel a bit guilty about it, but it was an adventure.”
He was then 12 years old.
After a year and a half with a kind English family, he was able to come to America to join his father, who had emigrated in the meantime. His mother, however, was forced to spend the war alone in Vienna, in great need, since, after Pearl Harbor, the outbreak of World War II had made it impossible for her to make the Atlantic crossing to the United States.
Once in this country, young George Jaeger made his way through high school and started college. At 18 he was drafted into the U.S. Army infantry and, after abbreviated training, was sent to Europe where the Battle of the Bulge was raging. Through another coincidence, he was picked out to be the German-speaking member of a small U.S. Army war crimes investigation team.
Much of it was routine investigative work, until, by sheer happenstance and luck, Jaeger discovered something entirely unknown till then, a Nazi extermination camp. It all started while he was acquiring some cigars for his major in the little town of Hadamar, near Remagen, where the U.S. forces were just crossing the Rhine.
“A man who appeared to be insane, chewing on his tie, approached me and whispered that he was a French intelligence officer and that I must come with him to see something very important,” he recounted.
Jaeger did, and discovered the Hadamar extermination camp, an otherwise genuine mental asylum. What made Hadamar exceptional was that slave laborers from Poland, Russia and the Balkans, who had been nearly worked to death in the Ruhr armaments factories, were brought there to be quietly disposed of — by lethal injection.
Somewhere between 30,000-50,000 had been murdered there during the war. The jolly nurse, who gave the injections and blamed it all on “doctors orders,” was one of several staff members later hanged by a British war crimes court.
Jaeger and his team were also among the first to enter the infamous Flossenburg concentration camp near the Bavarian-Czech border. “We were confronted by hundreds of emaciated, skeletal humans staggering out of the filthy barracks, with pyramids of naked bodies stacked outside. They asked us to help — “amis, amis, amis” — but there was little we could do until the U.S. Army came there in greater force.”
Jaeger’s last task as the war ended was to find his mother, who had survived the war in Vienna, but the city was then occupied by the Russian Army. Failing to get official permission, he “borrowed” a car and, after passing through 14 Russian checkpoints between Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, and Vienna with his impressive but phony papers, he found his mother. She was undernourished, and of course aged, but on the whole well.
It was a great shock for her and a joyous reunion. She was seeing her now 19-year-old son for the first time since she had sent him off to England as a boy before the war. Jaeger was able to spend three days with her before having to make his return trip to his unit. His mother eventually got Visa No. 1 when the American Embassy reopened in Vienna and was at last able to join her husband in America. It was after all a happy ending!
“And I am here because of pure luck,” George Jaeger told his young audience. “Had kind people not helped to get me out, my brains might have ended up in jars in Flossenburg like those of 600 other Viennese children of mixed marriages. I am alive because of the moral courage of the English Quakers.”
As the talk wound down, Jaeger made a connection between the past and the present.
“In these worst of times, there were people who upheld values at great risk to their lives, like that French intelligence officer, who was a hero.”
“Our contemporary challenge,” Jaeger said as he ended his talk, “is to preserve our democracy and what is best in our traditions, against domestic extremists and others who want to seize power. Otherwise, it would be the end of our constitutional system and the rule of law.”
“We are immensely fortunate to have had this chance to hear George Jaeger’s story,” said Tal Birdsey, head teacher at the North Branch School. “Over the years, we learn a great deal about religion and the Holocaust, but nothing makes it come alive like someone who was there. George’s stories are incredible on so many levels — moral, historical, philosophical —enough to change your life, something you will never forget.”
Afterward, North Branch School students reflected on what they had heard. “It was great to hear your story,” said Dinara Meyers, 15, of New Haven. “I have a story of leaving my mother in Russia, and sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about it, but hearing your story made me think about how strong you are.”
“I know that your coming to my school will be an experience I will never forget and will hold close to me for the rest of my life,” said Stella Laird, 14, of Lincoln. “If you could endure all of that, and be separated from your family, and still be here, then I feel I am capable of anything.”
Afterward, the students shook Jaeger’s hand and took a class photo with him outside the school.
Axel de Boer, 14, of Waltham was philosophical. “There is a saying by a historian,” he said, referring to George Santayana. “’Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.’”
Others were simply amazed. “At our school, we have heard many projects presented by students about the Holocaust and Nazism,” said Ezra Louer, 13, of New Haven. “But yours, George Jaeger, because you lived through it, was the best.”
Or, as Finn Myers, 14, of Middlebury wrote in his thank-you note to Jaeger: “After your talk, I am positive you are the smartest, coolest, most amazing, and experienced person to ever walk the earth … in our picture, we should have bowed to you … Thank you so very much for talking to me and my school.”
Editor’s note: This story was provided by North Branch School.
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