An American veteran of World War II and a German Jew whom he helped to rescue in Nazi-occupied Holland shared the stage at Granville Middle School (also in New Albany & Johnstown) yesterday to talk about their experiences and to preach the importance of tolerance. The presentation also gave students a chance to hear stories firsthand— an opportunity that is quickly fading away.
Don Jakeway, a U.S. paratrooper during the war, and Bert Jakobs, whose family had fled to Holland to avoid
persecution in Germany, only to be forced into hiding to avoid being sent to a concentration camp after the occupation, told of the Jakobs family’s ordeal and its liberation by American soldiers from Jakeway’s regiment in 1944.
Jakobs, 78, shared a room about the size of a two-car garage with four other people for more than two years while the German army controlled the country. His family ate the same meals every day: a bowl of oatmeal in the morning and potatoes and onions for lunch and dinner. They had to clean themselves with a washcloth from a basin, never brushing their teeth or changing their clothes during their confinement. But the emotional damage from missing much of his childhood was worse than the hardships in their hideout, he said. “I got married in 1956, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I told my three children or wife about hiding,” Jakobs told the students. “I didn’t want to talk about it. It was like a prison sentence.”
Now living in Palm Desert, Calif., Jakobs said he would rather live in the present than the past, but as he got older, he realized the importance of sharing his story. That’s why he agreed to come to central Ohio after he was contacted a few weeks ago by Mark Easton, a New Albany resident who had met Jakeway through volunteer work with veterans.
Originally, Easton had wanted to bring together the two — who had never met — to celebrate Jakeway’s 89th birthday in January, but Jakobs said the two should use the opportunity to talk to schoolchildren about the importance of treating people as equals. “We need to create a world where people are tolerant and accept people for who they are,” Jakobs said. “To me, that’s more important than living for 25 months hiding in a room.” The two spoke in several area
schools, wrapping up with Granville yesterday before Jakobs flew home in the afternoon.
Jakeway, a Johnstown resident, knew of Jakobs because he had corresponded with Jakobs’ sister, Edith Jakobs, who was living in Israel. Jakeway was working on a book about his experiences as a paratrooper in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division during the war. The two wrote regularly from 1986 until she died last year, he said.
Meeting her brother at Port Columbus on Wednesday was an emotional moment, Jakeway said. Listening to Jakobs speak to school groups taught him a side of the war that he had not experienced as a soldier. “I never got a chance to meet this family,” Jakeway told students yesterday. “I never remembered the homes, the houses, because we were looking for people behind them, or in the trees or bushes. There was a lot of fighting going on.” He echoed Jakobs’ call for students to be tolerant of those unlike themselves, reminding them that the Jakobs family had never harmed the Nazis who persecuted them.
Eighth-grader Dayton Steffeny, 14, said he was amazed by Jakobs’ recovery from his ordeal, and he said he is grateful that the world has changed since the Holocaust. “I think people can be cruel at times, but I think the world has gotten a lot
better,” he said.