By Anne Marie Amacher
DAVENPORT – All Saints Catholic School teacher Eileen O’Brien invited World War II veteran Jim Schaefer to share with fifth-graders his experiences that included entering a concentration camp shortly after it had been liberated.
The fifth-graders had just completed studies about the Holocaust. Schaefer, a member of Holy Family Parish in Davenport, had recently returned from a “March of the Living” event in Poland to commemorate those who survived the concentration camps and their liberators.
The Ohio native signed up to serve in the U.S. Army when World War II broke out. Following training, he received orders to head overseas. He first went to Marseille, France, to help the French retain their port. On Christmas Eve in 1944 he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. “We lost 3,000 people in just 10 days. We were not prepared.”
After that battle, he and the other members of his infantry division had no idea what they would “bump into.” They had heard of concentration camps, but didn’t realize the magnitude of the concentration camp system. His infantry division was not the first to enter a Polish concentration camp during the liberation, but followed shortly after.
“What I saw was terrible. The magnitude was so much bigger than what we had heard about.”
He learned later that among the people imprisoned and executed at the camp were Jewish people, Catholic priests and nuns, people with disabilities and others.
After the liberation, he also learned that Hitler and his German troops decided it was too costly to shoot people, so they devised the gas chamber. Then they put the bodies of the dead in piles to be cremated.
Since the war, Schaefer has attended many reunions of his infantry division. Last month he went to Poland to participate in March of the Living. “I was treated as a celebrity. People took our pictures, videotaped us and shook our hands. It was an emotional trip.”
The visitors walked to concentration camp sites and visited a museum. Each liberator received a medal that bore the name of the event, date and where it took place.
An All Saints student asked Schaefer if he had been injured during the war. He said he was injured twice, but not by gunfire. He turned down the offer of a Purple Heart.
He believes that during his war service “God was watching me.”
Another student asked Schaefer if he had felt confident or worried during the war. “The way I look back, I had a job to do. I also didn’t want to die.” He noted that of the 200 men in his company, only 19 returned home.
Another student asked about the reaction of Schaefer’s family when he returned home. “My family was elated. There was no parade. Just my father, mother and wife.”
Schaefer saw six months of combat in France, Germany, Austria and Poland.
“I’ve had 50 years of nightmares about what I saw.”
4 thoughts on “Veteran speaks to students”
Sir, you have used in your article a slur “Polish concentration camp”. This is not only false, inacurate but very offending to all Polish people. It also shows a lack of historical knowledge about the II War and can be clasified as a Holocaust denial.
There were no “Polish” concentration camps during the II War. There were Nazi Germany concentration camps in occupied Poland.
Please correct this statement as soon as you can and never use it again in the future.
If you would like to explain the use of word “Polish” because of geography, you should be more sensitive to the subject and use instead the “Nazi Germany concentration camps in occupied Poland”.
You would not say “Cuban prison in Guantanamo”? Would you?
The term ‘Polish Concentration Camp’ is incorrect. The Nazi Germans established the concentration camps on occupied Polish soil. They were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.
Thanks for your service.
Mr. Schaefer sounds like one of our heros and the students were indeed priviledged to hear his story. However, use of the phrase “Polish concentration camp” is not only incorrect, but leaves people with the impression that the Polish people had any part of that very ugly part of history. The concentration camps in German occupied Poland were built and administered by the Nazi Germans. Please correct your text. Thank you.
Speaking as a the son of a former inmate of Auschwitz, I would have to say that my father would’ve been surprised to hear that the concentration camp he was forced into was “Polish”, and not German.
He would’ve pointed out that it, and the other camps built in occupied Poland during World War II, were planned, designed and staffed by Germans. The guards patrolling the perimeter with their German shepherds were German and the barbed wired crowning the electrified fences and the Zyklon B pesticide used to asphyxiate the doomed were also made in Germany.
So how are these camps “Polish?”
Speaking as a former newspaper reporter, I’m sure you want your readers to know that you strive to make sure that every fact is correct in your publication. And when it isn’t, that your staff has the integrity to run a correction. That would be appropriate here. (You may also want to download the latest AP Stylebook which directs how concentrations camps should be referred to.)
Finally, no American troops ever entered Polish territory during World War II so either the writer is showing her bias or her poor fact-checking skills.
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