Veteran recalls military career, saving Jews from concentration camp
By Maayan Schechter | Aiken Standard, S.C. | Published: September 2, 2014
George Siegelman says he doesn’t really have a story to tell, but many may disagree.
With the help of his stepdaughter Pam Skiles and her husband, John Eubanks, Siegelman’s story unfolds, starting from his childhood in the suburbs of St. Louis and into his world travels and documenting Nazi war crimes.
Siegelman now is 98 years old.
Born in St. Louis on Aug. 12, 1916, to Samuel and Lillian, Siegelman remembers one of his father’s comedic, yet loving acts.
“My father worked at an electric company, and at the electric company, they had a fair number of dogs that would come down to the water level, and he used to bring home dogs every week,” Siegelman said. “He liked dogs; my mother didn’t.”
At the age of 16, and having never been away from his home, Siegelman became a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, later earning a degree in chemical engineering in 1937. Siegelman may never have joined MIT’S student body if his father, again, had not committed yet another loving act.
“He saved a man’s life,” Siegelman said.
Part of his schooling was paid for by a reward, the Carnegie Medal of Honor for Heroism, his father received for saving a man’s life after he prevented the man from falling off an I-beam, a beam made of structural steel used in construction and engineering.
From MIT, Siegelman received his first job out of college with Shell Oil Company, and soon after, he was drafted into the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant and then was assigned to the Third Chemical Mortar Battalion.
He would later be promoted to major.
Throughout his military career, Siegelman taught Army soldiers at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland how to protect themselves during chemical warfare. He also served overseas in the company headquarters of the Third Chemical Mortar Battalion in Africa, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. He was even part of a unit attached to Gen. George Patton’s Army during the Battle of the Bulge, a battle known to take place during one of the coldest winters in Europe’s history.
Part of Siegelman’s Army career took place in Gardelegen, a town where prisoners from a smaller concentration camp of Buchenwald, called Dora-Mittlebau, were held. While Siegelman’s unit liberated the concentration camp, part of the rescue came with a cost.
In an attempt to evade public knowledge of Nazi war crimes, soldiers took prisoners into a barn and then set it on fire, and Siegelman was a member of the military who documented the massacre through photography. The atrocities were later referred to as the “Gardelegen massacre.”
Growing up Jewish, Siegelman faced adversity from his peers and others for his religion. But, he said, his faith didn’t completely come into play when saving those prisoners, who were largely made up of Jews.
“It was good; it makes you feel good when you rescue people from other people who have been held for some time,” Siegelman said. “I don’t know what to say, you’re just releasing them from a hardship. It’s very gratifying when you took the Germans apart and got freedom for the people that were actually jailed.”
The images of that experience are still raw — he can feel them, he said.
“But it’s over now; I hope,” he said.
Many of Siegelman’s memories of war have been repressed, his family said.
After the war, Siegelman suffered, from what is now accepted as post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Siegelman went on to work as a plant manager at National Distillers, a manufacturer of polyethylene, near Decatur, Illinois. He met his first wife, Wilma, there and later on moved to New York where he had two children, Greg and Sue.
Siegelman then went on to work for Lummus, where he was in charge of oil platform construction in the North Sea off Scotland’s coast and in London. He helped build the Petralgas Company in New Zealand, Aramco Refinery in Iraq, and then worked in Korea and Brazil.
From 1967 to 1972, Siegelman traveled from Paris to Iran, to London and then Korea where he attended missionary school. He later landed in Holland, Russia and parts of South America.
Siegelman later married his second wife, Carolyn, in 1990, and at the end of Dec., 2012, he moved to Aiken.
Today, Siegelman enjoys attending the Aiken Center for Active Seniors, and his two children, three stepchildren, his 11 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and his second great-great-grandchild is on the way.
“I’m getting older,” Siegelman said. “I’m happy.”
Malayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @MaayanSchechter.
©2014 the Aiken Standard (Aiken, S.C.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.