Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Was God On Vacation? by Jack van der Geest - Guest Review

Thanks to my Dad for another great guest review!  The very interesting thing about this book was that it was a gift for my father from my niece who is dating Jack van der Geest's grandson.  He was telling my dad about his grandfather, which of course piqued his interest.  When he mentioned that his grandfather had written a book, my Dad knew he wanted to read more.  

Was God On Vacation?                             
by Jack van der Geest
van der Geest Publishing and Distribution Co.                               
Rapid City, SD
ISBN 0-9649615-2-0                                                          
            Mr. van der Geest took the title for his book from a question he heard posed by one of his fellow prisoners in the notorious German concentration camp, Buchenwald, during WWII.  Starved, beaten, dehumanized, and near death, the prisoner wondered aloud about the divinity whose watchful eye he had always believed was on him.  How could such horror be allowed to happen to him and all those others?
            We don’t know if that unnamed sufferer survived, but van der Geest himself eventually was one of the handful of people known to have accomplished the almost impossible feat of escaping that hell-hole.  He did it by feigning death at roll call one morning. The guards removed his emaciated body from the wooden shelving on which prisoners slept, and tossed it on a pile of corpses.  He lay there amongst the dead for eleven hours, waiting for whatever opportunity might some along and be possible for a man wasted away to less than a hundred pounds.  When that moment came, he managed to kill a guard, put on his uniform, commandeer a truck, drive out the gate, and eventually make his way across the border into occupied France.
            But that’s only one of the harrowing experiences set out in this autobiography.  Van der Geest tells of how it came about that a young gentile in the Netherlands fell into the clutches of the Nazis in the first place.  After his escape, he worked for a while with the French underground and then with the same activity in his native country.  His fluency in several languages landed him a spot in the US military, which led him into the 101st Airborne, parachuting into Normandy on D-Day, and being in Bastogne as the Battle of the Bulge raged around that besieged town.
            There’s much more, but van der Geest and his ghost writer are spare stylists so the book is rather small (180 pages) and it wouldn’t behoove a reviewer to tell the whole story and spoil it for any potential reader.  Suffice it to say, this was one of the most remarkable and praiseworthy life stories I’ve encountered in years of reading autobiographies and biographies.  Tribute to that life was given in 2009 when the State of South Dakota and Rapid City (where he lived for his last 55 years) held “Jack van der Geest Day” marking the 66th anniversary of his escape from Buchenwald.  After his death, two days following that special distinction, the South Dakota State Senate issued a resolution honoring him. 
            If your curiosity has been piqued and you’d like more on the man, go to the Internet and www.jackvendergeest.com (which will lead you into clips of an interview with van der Geest), or


  1. Thanks for this compelling review!

    There is a woman who survived Babi Yar in a similar way. The novel White Hotel is a fictional retelling of her story, in case you are interested.

  2. Oh, wow! This does sound like an amazing story and I am eager to give it a try. I have a few friends who I think would love it as well. Thanks for the fantastic review, Dad!

  3. Lisa, I'm so jealous that your family reads and will do reviews with you! I don't come from a book-loving family.

    The only family member of mine that reads is my older sister, maybe I can talk her into doing a guest review one day...hmmm....

  4. Wow! What a powerful story! I'm surprised that this book is just 180 pages. I have a feeling Jack van der Geest could feel1800 Pages easily with his life story. He must be a strong and remarkably courageous man. What really impressed me, aside from his brilliant and daring escape, was his choice to risk his life helping save others after almost dying in a concentration camp. It really makes you think...and count your blessings.

    Thank you Lisa and Lisa's dad for sharing your review of this amazing book by a more amazing man. I plan to look him up momentarily.
    ~ Amy

  5. Thanks to you Dad for bringing the writing of Jack van der Geest to our attention and for the youtube link. It must be meaningful to have a family link, but it's relevant to all of us and important to read such memoirs. My best friend's Polish gentile parents survived Auschwitz. I often wondered how, but they suffered from ill health, the father was blinded and they never talked about their experiences, so the memoirs or filmed interviews from concentration camp survivors are important, thought-provoking records.

  6. Excellent review and one that sounds like a must read!

  7. This was truely the best book I have ever read. I remember getting the chance to meet him and personally listen to his story when i was growing up in SD. Many years later I still have the autographed book that i bought from his own hands and every time i see it i can remember sitting in the gym at our school listening to him. It is a must read, this is one book that should be read by everyone!