Jack van der Geest (September 17, 1923 - March 3, 1943 - March 5, 2009) was one of a few people known to have escaped from Buchenwald concentration camp. This notorious death camp operated from 1937 until liberated by U.S. Troops on April 11, 1945. Although he escaped on March 3, 1943, a camp death certificate declared him dead on that date.
Jack's father, Jacobus Petrus Cornelis van der Geest, was born in The Hague, Netherlands. Jacobus van der Geest, owned the Lendsveld Nikola bread factory in The Hague. This factory supplied bread to Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands. Along with his father, mother and older sister, Willie, Jack lived a normal active life until he turned 16.
On May 10, 1940 the German army invaded The Netherlands, and conquered this small, nearly unarmed country in a few days. Jack and his friend Fred de Koning were in downtown Rotterdam near the De Bijenkorf Department Store during the bombing of the city. They escaped harm, but Fred's father, an accountant, died in his office. During his youth Jack was also friends with Sam Cohen and his family. This Jewish family owned a clothing store. All were presumed to have died in concentration camps during the war.
After the German army occupied The Netherlands, Jack and his father joined the Dutch Resistance. Both were involved in disrupting German military operations. During this time Jack continued his education at the Aviation Institute in Scheveningen. On his graduation date in 1942, he decided not to attend his graduation and later found out that the Nazis had forcibly enlisted his graduating class for Hitler's war machine. He continued his underground work.
In September 1942 the Gestapo raided the van der Geest apartment at Soestdijksekade 43 3rd Floor. They had been betrayed by a neighbor. Jack and his parents were book by the Gestapo at Scheveningen and taken to the Oranje Hotel (see arrest record dated 9/25/1942). Jack was held separately from his parents. Not until much later did Jack find out that his mother, Anna, was sent to Ravensbruck. She was incarcerated for 3 1/2 months, then released and returned to The Hague. Here she lived out the rest of the war, uncertain of the fate of her husband and son. Jack's father (b. November 11, 1896 - d. February 19, 1943) was sent to Amersfoort, and then transferred to Kamp Vught on November 6, 1942. It was previously thought that Jack's father had died in Dachau, however, records recovered in Spring 2009 indicated he had died in Vught. His prisoner number at Vught was 2204, and the cause of death, according to additional records obtained from the International Tracing Service, is cardiovascular insufficiency and gastroenteritis. The Nazis were famous for keeping meticulous records, however, they commonly lied about the cause of death.
Jack van der Geest was shipped by train and incarcerated in Buchenwald from approximately September 25, 1942 to March 3,1943. He became prisoner number 512601. He worked in Cell Block 46 as a doctor, and survived brutal medical experiments at the hands of the notorious Dr. Ding Schuler. On March 3, 1943, Jack escaped by pretending he'd died prior to the 5:00 AM roll call. Thrown into a pile of bodies approximately 50 feet long and 4 feet high, he lay still for 12 hours. Then, weighing 80 pounds, he killed an SS Guard, put on his uniform and rode a truck out of camp. That night he stayed at a farmhouse 5 km south of Weimar. The names of the German couple he stayed with are unknown to this day: what is known is that they were middleaged, he walked with a limp, she'd had jaw surgery, and they had a son in the German army. From there Jack traveled by train to Neufchateau, France where with the assistance of Maquis members Dr. Marvel, a dentist, and his wife Cherie, he joined the French Resistance.
Jack later traveled to England and joined the 101st Airborne Division as an interpreter. He moved to Rapid City and in 1953 became a U.S. Citizen, and later joined the U.S. Air Force. Over a six year period he wrote his memoirs, and in 1995 they were published in the book Was God on Vacation? (ISBN 0964961520 - 3rd edition). A copy of his Buchenwald death certificate appears in the 1999 and 2002 editions of the book. Jack lived in Rapid City, South Dakota for more than 55 years.
He was a member of the USA 101st Airborne Association (#3272). He is registered with the survivor's registry at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 1998, he was interviewed by the Shoah Foundation in Denver, CO. The interview is nearly 5 hours long, and the code for the interview at the Foundation is 41857.
Although Jack struggled with survivor's guilt for 66 years, he recognized that there was simply no way he could have escaped Buchenwald without Divine Assistance. He later dedicated his life to Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and frequently talked about this faith.
On September 17, 2008, U.S. Senator John Thune read a proclamation on the floor of the U.S. Senate in recognition of Jack's 85th birthday. March 3, 2009 was declared Jack van der Geest Day in Rapid City and South Dakota in celebration of the 66th anniversary of his escape. He became ill in the earlier morning hours of March 5, died at Rapid City Regional Hospital. He was declared dead at 4:59 AM on March 5, 2009. He died 66 years and 2 days, to the minute, after he had "died" at Buchenwald. Jack is buried in Calvary Cemetery on Sheridan Lake Road in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Read U.S. Senator John Thune's statement on the occasion of Jack's 85th birthday on 9/17/2008.
Read the column by Rapid City Journal report Kevin Woster on the occasion of Jack's 85th birthday. (9/21/2008)
Read the transcript and listen to Jack's last public speech, which followed the presentation of the City and State proclamations. (3/02/2009)
Rapid City man recognized for escaping Nazi concentration camp 66 years ago (Rapid City Journal, 3/03/2009)
WWII prison camp escapee, author Jack van der Geest dies at age 85 (Rapid City Journal, 3/06/2009)
Jack's obituary (Rapid City Journal, 3/07/2009)
Jack's funeral program (part 1 & part 2) (3/09/2009)
Recognition by the South Dakota State Senate, introduced by State Senator Stan Adelstein (March 2009)
Keeping history in the present (by columnist and State Public Radio reporter Jim Kent, 5/21/2009)
SD Public Broadcasting Radio Story (by Jim Kent, 5/22/2009)