In 2011, Minnie Payne and Ashley Hudson listened to Jack Repp tell his story at the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance. The Preston Hollow resident, then 86 years old, had survived six years of torture at the Radom labor camp in Poland and Dachau concentration camp in Germany. When he finally was liberated, he was 21 years old and only weighed 69 pounds.
“I tell you what. When I actually fell and I broke down… the crematorium. I got in the exact place where I was laying there in line. That’s where I broke down. I made a prayer for the people who died,” Repp then told NBC5.
Originally published May 2011
At least once a week for the past 14 years, Preston Hollow resident Jack Repp has traveled to the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance. The museum is an uncomfortable place for the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor, but still he makes the trip because he believes it is important to tell his story.
“He relives his horror each time he speaks,” says Alice Murray, CEO of the museum and center. “His only reason to come is to tell others that hatred has to stop.”
Repp vividly remembers the day in September 1939 when German soldiers first marched into his hometown of Radom, Poland. At first, his life went on as normal — a “sweet life,” Repp recalls, with his mother, father, sister and four brothers.
One day, however, the Germans showed up at his interfaith school, roughly two-thirds Catholic and one-third Jewish. The Nazis escorted the principal, assistant principal, teachers and all of the students, without distinction, to a work site consisting of two piles of mud and stone.
The Germans instructed the principal and assistant principal to show the students how to work. When the work wasn’t completed to their liking, the Germans beat their forced laborers, Repp says. After about six hours of work, the students were hungry and thirsty. Because Repp was athletic, the principal chose him to ask the commandant if the students could have some water.
The commandant responded by selecting two students to tie Repp’s hands together and hang him by his hands. Then two German soldiers beat his back with leather straps until he began to bleed. He was cut down and immediately forced back to work.
“The work was of no use except to take our dignity, our childhood and our intelligence from us,” Repp says.
The students continued to work for another four hours. The principal instructed another student to ask the commandant for food, but because the child feared being severely beaten, he refused. After working 12 hours, the teachers, principals and students were thrown into the mud, beaten and chased home.
When Repp arrived home, his parents immediately cleaned him, fed him, treated his wounds, and then sat down at a table to ask questions.
“My father, a successful department store owner, asked me what work the Germans had the students perform, and when I told him, he immediately got up and brought a prayer book [Haggadah] to the table,” Repp says.
“I said to myself, ‘What does that book have to do with this?’ My father went through the pages and found a verse where the Jewish people were slaves under Pharaoh, and read that the exact same work was ordered to strip dignity from people.”
The day after this initial nightmare, Repp returned to school and says his life returned to normal. A month later, however, the German soldiers returned. This time they seized all of the Jewish children and took them to a labor camp called Radom.
Repp was only 15. Never again would he be able to use the word “mom” or “dad.”
When he and the other children arrived at the camp, they saw a sign at the gate: “arbeit macht frei” — work will make you free. The children’s names were discarded, and they each were assigned a number.
Repp’s was 238.
“We knew that if the Russians were coming, we would be free,” Repp says. But no one smiled. “If we had a smile on our face, they would kill us.”
The Germans led the prisoners on a death march to a camp. On the way to the camp, the boys were ordered to undress on one side, the girls on the other. They knew what that meant.
“Torturous [gas] would come through overhead vents, and we wouldn’t come out,” Repp says. “At that time, we hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for three or four days.”
Repp should have died that day, but instead of forcing the prisoners into the gas chambers, the Germans took them to another camp, this one with a factory where they were instructed to build missiles.
Repp recalls that conditions in the camps were horrible. Rations consisted of two cups of colored water with one slice of bread for breakfast, and a bowl of soup with no substance for lunch and dinner. This “food”, however paltry, wasn’t guaranteed.
The prisoners slept on wood with no mattress, pillow or even a blanket. They wore dirty clothes, and lice were everywhere.
“People were dying right and left,” Repp says.
Several years passed until the day the prisoners had long awaited finally came.
“We were lined up beside a 24-hour crematorium,” Repp says. “The third morning, a young man in an American Army uniform came in and started hollering, ‘You’re free! You’re free!’ But we couldn’t understand his language.”
When Red Cross trucks arrived at the camp, Repp recognized the symbol and realized that freedom was finally within reach. The trucks carried Repp and the other prisoners from the camp to a hospital.
Repp was 21 years old and weighed 69 pounds. He had spent six years under the control of the Nazis.
When Repp recounts this tragic story to students visiting the Holocaust museum, they are riveted by his experience. Repp says these students share his story with their parents, who share it with their friends, so many people are able to learn from his experience.
Beyond the museum, Repp regularly speaks at schools, colleges and military bases, each event scheduled by his companion, Sarah Yarrin, who always accompanies him.
“Working for Dallas Holocaust Museum is very gratifying, and I feel that Holocaust should not be forgotten,” Yarrin says. “By Jack telling his story to younger generations, they will be aware of intolerance to people.”
This is how Repp finds hope in the Holocaust’s painful legacy: He believes that telling his story will prevent others from experiencing what he endured.
“Freedom is priceless.” Repp says, “What happened to me and others shouldn’t happen again.”
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