A Conversation with German Survivor Gerald Schwab

Gedenkdienst (No. 2/2005)

"I wanted to be sent to Europe to participate in the struggle against the Nazis."

For several years Gerald Schwab worked as a volunteer in the Division of Senior Historians at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Gerry has his friends and colleagues call him, was born in Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany and given the name Gerd. Only when his military papers were drawn up during the course of naturalization in 1944 did he have his first name changed to Gerald. Together with his family, who originally came from Breisach on the Rhine, Gerald move to Basel, Switzerland in 1933 for a short time. His father was a businessman by profession and was active in various countries. Gerald’s family then lived for a time in France - in Saint Louis to be exact - a small town on the Swiss border where young Gerald attended school until mid-1935 when the family moved back to Lörrach in Germany.

In response to the massive anti-Semitic pogrom in 1938 known as Kristallnacht, Switzerland agreed to admit three hundred Jewish children. At this time, the german government did not object to the emigration of children. In April of 1939, at the age of fourteen, Gerd was sent to live with a farming family in Mönchaltsdorf and then lived in Hütten o Wädenswill on Lake Zürich. His parents were not permitted to either leave Germany or to enter Switzerland and had to remain behind in Lörrach. The family maintained regular contact. In May 1940, Gerd returned to Germany in order to prepare his emigration from Europe. His family had already been approved to receive immigration papers from the American Consulate in Stuttgart. They received their papers on the very day Germany invaded the Netherlands and Belgium (May 10, 1940).

On week later, the entire family made its way to America. They made the long journey to New York by sea on the George Washington via Genoa, Italy. One month later, this journey would have been impossible after Italy joined the war as Germany’s ally.

The émigré family settled in Long Branch, New Jersey, after a short stay in New York. At first Gerry’s father worked as a chauffeur and gardener and his mother as a domestic servant for a well-to-do family. In 1941, the family acquired a chicken farm with the help of the Jewish Agricultural Society. Gerry had to help out on the farm while he was going to school. At the beginning of 1944, Gerald Schwab volunteered for the military and, after thirteen weeks of basic training in Florida, was sent back to Europe as an infantryman.

Training there was very hard because it didn’t take place in the part of Florida you know from your holidays. Boot camp was located in the north, in a region of sand, swamp and snakes. After that training, he had two options: the units in the Pacific or those in Europe.

Gerry lapses into thought for a few moments and then continues: "I wanted to be sent to Europe to participate in the struggle against the Nazis." He smiles and adds: "It’s interesting to know how it happened: all the soldiers who wore glasses were required to have also a spare paid, and at this time, it was not so easy to get glasses. I had to wait for my spare pair. For this reason, I was not sent with the unit with which I was trained. The unit was sent to France and participated in the Battle of the Bulge, the last big battle of World War II. Two weeks after the departure of my comrades, I was deployed to Naples in November 1944. From there I went to Caserta and then further north in Italy with the 10th Mountain Division, which, incidentally, was the only existing American mountain division. A short while ago I was asked: "What were you doing on May 8, 1945, the day World War II officially ended?"

I was sleeping because at that point in time the war had already been over for us for a few days. We were tired and thought that we would shortly be transferred to the Pacific. My buddies were shipped back to the States in order to be transferred to the Far East. I, however, was directed to the headquarters of the 5th Army in Europe because it needed interpreters and translators.

Headquarters was at the Gardone Riviera on Lake Gardia where I served for the next two months. Then I was needed in Gmunden, Austria, and in May 1946 I resigned from the Army in Vienna. After the war Gerry worked in Germany for another year. For six months he was an interpreter and translator for the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg and then another six months as a research analyst in Berlin at the Ministry of Justice preparing documentation for the Nuremberg trials. At this time he had access to documentation about the Kristallnacht. He later wrote a book based in part on these materials. After that, Gerald returned to the United States and attended the University of Chicago, the only major university to accept incoming students without high school diplomas. After three years there he continued at Stanford and George Washington universities. After graduating in 1951, Gerald worked for the State Department, first in American and then in the Foreign Service. From 1955 to 1957 he worked in Vienna. Later he worked in several countries including Togo and Sierra Leone. Today Gerry lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and volunteers for the Division of Senior Historians, carrying out a variety of research tasks.

This text was written originally in German by Stefan Stoev, a young Austrian who served as a Gedenkdiener at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.