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.”