“Enjoy your freedom,” was the way Jack van der Geest, one of most amazing people I’ve ever met, always signed his autobiography. It was a lesson he learned the hard way and one he worked tirelessly to spread all across the nation and world.
Early on in his imprisonment in Buchenwald, the notorious Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, van der Geest was a teenager who witnessed a guard brutalize an elderly Jewish prisoner, then taunt him with: “Where’s your God now – on vacation?” Though anyone playing the odds at that time would have bet against it, van der Geest would one day write a memoir of his World War II experiences and entitle it with that indignity: “Was God On Vacation?”
It’s a remarkable firsthand account of how a Dutch teenager was imprisoned, along with his entire family, for their work with the Dutch Underground during World War II and how his faith in God sustained him. By war’s end, his father would be murdered in Dauchau, his mother and sister would survive their imprisonment in Ravensbruck, and van der Geest would become only one of eight people to escape and survive Buchenwald. Last Thursday, the last of the eight still living, van der Geest, 85, died in Rapid City, SD, where he’d lived for more than 50 years.
Just two days before was the 66th anniversary of van der Geest’s March 3, 1943, escape from Buchenwald. He did so by playing dead in his putrid bunk before morning roll call, then lying motionless for 13 hours before crawling from a heap of bodies awaiting cremation. Weighing less than 90 lbs. after eight months of overwork, malnutrition and terror, he crawled from the pile to overcome a guard twice his size, don his uniform and literally walk out the gates of the camp.
That act began an amazing odyssey that saw van der Geest serving with the French Underground spiriting downed Allied flyers to safety in Switzerland, parachuting with the 101st Airborne into Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944, and serving in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
Post-war, his most fervent wish was to emigrate to the U.S., which he eventually did in late 1949. He joined the U.S. Air Force, became a U.S. citizen in 1953 and settled in Rapid City, where he married and raised his family.
Once out of the military, he sold insurance. He tried to bury the tortures of his past, saying little, even to his wife, but his nightmares were a constant reminder.
Then one day he read an article in his local newspaper about a Minnesota teacher who had told students that the Holocaust was a myth. Angered and in disbelief, he says his wife convinced him to tell his story. Few people knew the secrets he harbored.
And so commenced his speaking career before classrooms and civic groups, first in South Dakota and later across the country, to tell his remarkable firsthand account. In 1995, he self-published his memoir, “Was God On Vacation?” He told me once that the experiences had had proven cathartic, and his nightmares increasingly became fewer.
He had a quiet, kindly demeanor that belied the horror he’d seen and experienced in life. His presentations weren’t polished but they were spellbinding; you could literally hear a pin drop during his talks. Only sniffles broke the silence.
His message was simple. He told of the importance of faith and how it sustained him. He told of the overriding value of freedom and preserving your rights. He was a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights, telling how gun registration before the war allowed the occupying Germans to easily confiscate all guns from the Dutch populace. And he talked of his reverence and gratitude for the sacrifices of our armed forces.
His book concludes this way: “I’m grateful for all the years that I’ve lived in the U.S. I have never gone hungry. I’ve had a good life. But my thoughts are often with the young boys who hit the beaches of Normandy, France in June of 1944. They gave their lives to liberate the nations oppressed by the tyranny of Hitler’s troops. Also I’ve never forgotten the American soldiers who fought in Korea and Vietnam. They’ve all made it possible for us to live in a free country.
“Next time you pledge allegiance to our flag, I hope you get the same thrill down your spine that I do.”