6 years in hell: From the Holocaust to helping to hang Nazis

Jack Repp (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Jack Repp (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Jack Repp watched the hangings of every Nazi he helped convict with the U.S. Secret Service. Before they were hung, Repp took the rope from the executioner’s hands. He never yanked it, but he wanted to make an impression. He wanted his voice to be one of the last they heard.

“You know what that message was?” Repp says. “ ‘I don’t know how you could  be out all day long, commit the atrocities you have committed, and then go home, touch your wife or touch your kids and use the words ‘I love you.’ ”

The 93-year-old Preston Hollow resident remembers the details of the tribunals, from the expensive suits the Nazis wore to how they wept during sentencing.

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“I didn’t have tears in my eyes,” he says. “They took my parents away, my brothers away. I didn’t cry.”

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Repp is grateful his mind never failed him, even in the moments his body was on the verge of collapse. Hitler took his family and his home, Repp says, but he couldn’t take his brain.

“I went through plenty of hell, and I was tickled to death to survive,” he says.

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In 1939, the Germans invaded his hometown of Radom, Poland, where Repp lived with his four brothers, his sister and parents. The Germans ordered every Jewish family  to move into a ghetto when he was roughly 15 years old.

He returned from school one day to an abandoned house. He never saw his parents and brothers again. It was only when World War II ended that he learned his sister was the only other family member to survive.

In Radom, Repp worked in an ammunition factory and lived in a slave labor camp-turned-concentration camp. He escaped the gas chambers during selection. Standing in line, he told the German officers he already was 18 and could work.

It wasn’t the first time Repp avoided death. He survived unrelenting death marches to camp after camp.

The conditions were dismal. Everyone was dirty and infested with lice. Starving, he ate potato or apple peels he found in the sewer to survive.

“I never complained I’m hungry,” he says. “You know why? If you’re going to complain, it’s going to help you die.”

Jack Repp and Rabbi Dan Lewin (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Jack Repp and Rabbi Dan Lewin (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Six years had passed before men wearing U.S. Army uniforms and Red Cross trucks arrived at Dachau. It was 1945. Repp was 21 years old and weighed 69 pounds. Toothless, malnourished and infected with typhus, he could barely stand.

Finally free, his safety was short-lived. He was living in a displaced-persons camp when the U.S. Secret Service asked him to wear a Nazi uniform and impersonate a German soldier to help bring them to trial.

Repp stepped up to the challenge, risking his life for another four years to bring justice for the millions of lost lives.

“I felt stronger than you can imagine,” he says. “If you live that type of life, you have to be strong.”

Repp felt obligated to assist the Secret Service, much like he believes it’s his responsibility to talk about the Holocaust. He speaks to visitors at the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance weekly, even though he now struggles to walk. Legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg even interviewed him  for research in 1996.

“As he’s gotten older, this is what he really enjoys doing — telling his story — because he feels it’s so important that it needs to be told,” says his longtime companion Sarah Yarrin. “How much of it do you get in a history book? I don’t know. But this is someone who lived it.”

Repp doesn’t hesitate to share the most painful details etched into his memory. His voice has the same intensity as if he’s telling the story for the first time. The Nazis pulled out every tooth in his mouth with a pair of rusty pliers for one gold filling. With no water, he used his own urine to rinse his mouth. Soldiers forced prisoners to set bodies on fire, even when many hadn’t taken their last breath.

The details are gruesome, but they were a harsh reality for Repp. His fearlessness and candid manner of speaking struck Rabbi Dan Lewin, a Preston Hollow writer and adjunct professor at the University of North Texas. He’s devoted his time to writing Repp’s memoir, he says, to preserve the parts of Repp’s life that aren’t encapsulated in a one-hour lecture. Lewin believes the first-person account will have the greatest impact.

“When people speak about the Holocaust, it’s very removed,” Lewin says. “You see terrible pictures and videos and skeletons and bodies and evil faces. You say, ‘Oh, how terrible this is,’ but then you snap back into your life.”

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Armed with several questions each week, Lewin sits with Repp in his living room for hours at a time. He plans to complete the memoir by May 1, the day Repp remembers being liberated 72 years ago.

“Lately, talking about all this has brought it all back in his mind,” Yarrin says, adding that she recently caught him tapping a beat on his leg, something he did in the camps to pass time.

Surviving the Holocaust shaped the rest of Repp’s life. He knows he’s become different from most.

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At his South Dallas department store, which he ran for 44 years, he refused to install separate doors for blacks and whites during the Jim Crow era. If customers didn’t like it, they knew where to exit, Repp says. He never called police when he caught a shoplifter and gave clothes to families who couldn’t afford them at a discounted rate.

“From what I survived, how can I take a person and put a label on them for the rest of his life?”

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