Jacobus (Jack) van der Geest was born in The Hague, The Netherlands, September 17, 1923. Before WWII ended Jack worked with the Dutch and French Resistance, escaped from Buchenwald concentration camp, helped Allied flyers escape to Switzerland, and was an interpreter for the United States (US) Army 101st Airborne Division.
Jack spoke seven languages he learned in school and from friends. He spoke Dutch, English, German, French, Flemish, Javanese, and Malayan. This ability proved to be invaluable to him during WWII and after.
[The Netherlands proclaimed neutrality when WWII began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. In spite of this, Germany invaded the country on May 10, 1940. After overwhelming the Dutch Army and the bombing of Rotterdam, The Netherlands surrendered to Germany on May 15, 1940. Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government escaped to the United Kingdom before the surrender and established a government-in-exile.]
In Jack’s autobiography Was God on Vacation? he tells of being awakened on May 10, 1940, at 4 o’clock in the morning to the sound of explosions somewhere in The Hague. He, his parents and sister, and a friend staying with them that night ran from their apartment at Soestdijksekade 43 and gathered in the street with other residents of the neighborhood to see what was happening. Jack said leaflets were dropping from airplanes. The leaflets message, in Dutch on one side and German on the other side, was “We the German people came to liberate you.”
[In 1938 The Netherlands passed a law requiring firearms owners to register their guns. The Germans used the registration list to go to homes and businesses collecting the weapons of Dutch citizens. Some weapons escaped detection and became useful in the Dutch Resistance.]
The Dutch Resistance had many small, decentralized units that planned independent actions against the Germans. Jack’s father became an area commander of such a unit in 1941. Jack was a member.
In September 1942 the Gestapo went to the van der Geest apartment and arrested Jack, his father, and his mother. A Dutch woman collaborating with the Germans betrayed them.
Jack and his father and mother were taken to a prison near The Hague in Scheveningen which in WWII was nicknamed “The Orange Hotel.” They were interrogated separately. Jack worried about his parents and did not find out until after WWII what happened to them. Among his worries he didn’t know what happened to their old fox terrier, Jony, left in their apartment after the family was arrested.
After interrogation Jack was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Travelling in a standing room only cattle car with other prisoners, Jack arrived at Buchenwald the end of September 1943. Some prisoners died during the journey. At the camp the prisoners had their heads shaved, were disinfected, and given striped uniforms to wear. Jack’s prisoner number on his jacket was 512601. Beneath it was a red triangle identifying him as a political prisoner. Assigned to work in several different areas of the camp, his last assignment in Block 46 was the most horrifying. It was where they did human experimentation on camp inmates. Some of what Jack saw he could never discuss even toward the end of his life.
After nearly six months in Buchenwald Jack didn’t know how much longer he could live and planned an escape. His plan would take extreme focus and patience on his part. He knew the crematorium was out of fuel and used this knowledge to his advantage.
Every morning there was a prisoner roll call in the camp at 5 o’clock. In March 1944, one morning Jack “played dead.” A guard wrote down his prisoner number, and his seemingly lifeless body was dragged to an area where the dead were stacked for disposal. He laid among the corpses until early that evening when there was only one guard near the pile of bodies. With his remaining strength Jack jumped up and overpowered that guard. He removed his German uniform and with multiple layers of clothing that he removed from the corpses to fill out his skeletal frame under the uniform, he started to walk toward the entrance gate of the camp. It was now dark, and a German truck driver saw him walking. The driver offered him a ride to Weimar. Jack jumped in the back of the truck and then jumped out the first time the truck slowed down after it was driven out of the concentration camp.
Near Weimar a German farm couple let Jack stay at their home that first night after escaping. He was still in a German uniform and was never sure they knew who he really was. Jack spent the night in their son’s bedroom and saw a picture of him in his German Army uniform. The next day the farm couple gave him their son’s bicycle to continue his journey.
Feigning a limp to look like a soldier wounded in the war when he was seen in public, Jack found a railroad station in Erfurt, Germany, and decided to get in a boxcar of a train headed west to France. Shedding the German uniform along the way, he dressed in some civilian clothes he took from the farmhouse. He changed trains three times and eventually arrived in Neufchateau, France. Jack decided to get off the train at that point.
In Neufchateau Jack decided to take a risk and find a dentist. A guard in Buchenwald had knocked out his two front teeth. His gums were swollen and infected. A dentist Dr. Marvell treated his infection and later put in two false teeth. After cautious and wary conversation Jack told the dentist he had escaped from Buchenwald. Dr. Marvell revealed he was a member of a French Resistance group called the Maquis and asked Jack if he would like to join the Resistance. Jack said yes, and the dentist arranged transportation for him to Paris, France.
In Paris Jack’s Resistance group would steal important information from the Germans to pass along to the Allies and would break into government buildings to get identification and food ration cards to give to Jews and dissenters in hiding. They also helped downed Allied flyers escape from France.
A Paris Resistance member Guillaume who ran a Allied flyers escape line asked Jack to go with him on a mission to guide flyers from Paris to Neuchatel, Switzerland. Guillaume thought Jack’s escape and evasion experience and ability to speak multiple languages would be extremely useful. On Jack’s first mission he and Guillaume met three flyers (two British and one American) at Versailles outside Paris.
The phase of the moon was important in planning these missions as travel was mainly by night and paralleled main roads to avoid German vehicles. They walked approximately 248 miles (399 kilometers) to Switzerland, and the trip could take 10-12 days one way. French farmers and Resistance members living along the route would provide shelter and food for the group.
Jack led the next mission on his own. On his sixth mission an American flyer told him being multilingual would be of great use in the upcoming Allied invasion of Europe. Jack knew that there were other Allied flyers escape lines, and he felt that his luck may be running out. He sent word back to Paris that he was going to England from Switzerland. He and the escaping Allied flyers left one night from an airstrip near Zurich, Switzerland, in what looked to Jack like a Douglas DC 3. There were British and American Embassy personnel on the flight also. Switzerland declared neutrality in WWII, but Jack found out then that in wartime certain rules do not always apply.
It was March 1944, and Jack was 20 years old.
In England Jack was chosen as an interpreter for the US Army 101st Airborne Division. He trained as a paratrooper and parachuted into Normandy with them as part of Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944. Jack acted as an interrogator and interpreter.
Jack stepped foot on Dutch soil again in Masstricht, The Netherlands.
In Bastogne Jack had an opportunity to return the kindness of the German farm couple who had fed and sheltered him after his escape from Buchenwald. A captured young German soldier he was interrogating described a farm near Weimer, Germany, where he lived with his parents before WWII began. To the surprise of the soldier Jack provided him a description of his parents. He told the soldier he had fine parents and said nothing else. In Jack’s interrogation report he stated that he knew the soldier’s parents, that they helped him when he escaped from Buchenwald, and asked that nothing happen to their son.
The end of 1944 brought a message that the Dutch government ordered her countrymen in foreign service to report to England. After reaching London Jack was given two choices: join the Dutch Army and train in England or become a Royal Netherlands Marine and train in the US. His time spent with Americans and wish to go to the US made the choice an easy one for him.
The end of January 1945 Jack and other Dutch marines left Liverpool, England, on the Queen Elizabeth sailing to New York City, New York. The Queen Elizabeth on that voyage served as a hospital ship. The Dutch marines helped care for the wounded servicemen returning to the US. In New York Harbor Jack used a sheet as a sling to carry a soldier who had lost both legs up to the main deck of the ship. The soldier wanted to see the Statue of Liberty. Someone started to sing The Star Spangled Banner. Others joined in.
Jack trained at US Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, South Carolina, and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. He was in Washington, DC, when he heard the war in Europe had ended on May 8, 1945.
During his time in the US Jack asked the Red Cross for help in locating his parents. But he could get no news of his parents and sister.
On December 8, 1945, the Dutch marines left Virginia by ship with a destination of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Military assignments while based there included rescuing 50 Dutch marines captured in Indonesia during WWII that were being held in a Japanese prison near Peking (Beijing), China, and clearing Japanese soldiers out of the jungle of Java, Indonesia, who did not know WWII ended.
In July 1946 Jack was discharged from the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps. He found a job with a shipping and transport company located in Sydney, Australia. He still had no word about his family.
After two and a half years Jack found himself back in Java on a business trip. A letter from his mother was waiting for him at the post office. She and Jack’s sister had survived the war and were in The Hague. [Jack learned from his mother after WWII ended that his father was sent from “The Orange Hotel” to Dachau concentration camp about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northwest of Munich, Germany, where he died on February 19, 1943. His mother was sent to the German concentration camp Ravensbruck 56 miles (90 kilometers) north of Berlin, Germany. She was released about three and a half months later and returned to The Hague. Records found in 2009 indicate Jack’s father died in Camp Vught which was a transit and concentration camp in The Netherlands in WWII.]
Jack wanted to become an American citizen. There was a six year waiting list to emigrate to the US from The Netherlands. In Australia, where he had been living and working, there was a four and a half year waiting list. Indonesia only required a person to speak Malaysian and live there for 30 days. Easily fulfilling the two requirements Jack sailed to the US and en route stopped in The Netherlands for three months to visit his mother and sister.
He arrived in the US in November 1949 at 26 years of age.
While registering as an alien at a post office in Baltimore, Maryland, Jack saw a notice that one could become a US citizen after serving three years in the US military. On March 2, 1950, Jack joined the US Air Force, became a Radar Operator on a B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber, and was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. May 5, 1953, after serving three years in the military, Jack became a citizen of the US.
Jack died March 3, 2009, in Rapid City, South Dakota. He was 85 years old.
Jack’s love for his adopted country is expressed in the last sentence of his autobiography Was God on Vacation? when he states “Next time you pledge allegiance to our flag, I hope you get the same thrill down your spine that I do.”
A friend of Jack’s once visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Museum where he found the Death Certificate of a prisoner named Jacobus van der Geest. Jack was one of only eight people to escape from Buchenwald.
Jack published his book Was God on Vacation? (with Carol Ordemann) in 1995. Thank you to his son Van van der Geest for his help in the research for this story. The story, photographs, and maps are published with his permission.
On April 29, 1998, the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education did an interview with Jack. He was named a Rescuer and Aid Provider by the Foundation for helping Jews during the Holocaust. The link to the interview (Part 1 and Part 2) is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIMqe6_VZ54.
Jony, the family fox terrier, was rescued from their apartment three days after the family was arrested.