An Amazing Story Of Survival – Fritz And Hans Dieter (Pete) Jentzsch, by Greg Segroves
I have had the pleasure of knowing Pete and Janice Jentzsch since the late 1970’s. Over the years, by bits and pieces, I have come to realize that Pete and his dad Fritz share an amazing story of survival.
This morning, July 9, 2016, I sat down with Pete in his home and talked to him for over two hours. Hans-Dieter Christian Jentzsch, or Pete as he is known to his friends, was born in Glauchau Germany on December 10, 1936. For some reason his mom tried to convince him that he was born on December 10, 1940. Not until the 1980’s did he learn that he was four years older than he thought he was.
Pete’s father was a German soldier named Fritz Jentzsch, born 1912. Pete’s mom was Gertraute Margereta Dohle Jentzsch, born 1916. Soon the family would move to Eger Germany in Saxony, near the Czechoslovakian border. Pete was born the same year that Hitler invaded the Rhineland. He would be two and a half years old when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Within days Britain and France declared war on Germany and World War 2 was on big time. Pete would not remember his dad, although there is a picture of a smiling Fritz, looking proudly at his baby son. Fritz would be with the army as it invaded Poland, Belgium, France, and Russia all during the formative years of Pete’s life. Fritz started out as an enlisted man in the band. By the end of the war he was an officer fighting in the infantry.
Pete was the oldest of two brothers. His brother, Wolfgang Friedrich Jentzsch, was born on February 18, 1938. Kindergarten was Pete’s earliest
memory – his instructors were SS officers. They were very strict and corporal punishment was harsh. Pete said that he was never taught anything about America and he didn’t know it even existed. The kids marched everywhere they went. There were pictures of Hitler on the wall and the kids sang patriotic songs. In 1942 he remembered a creek bed near Werdau Germany where the Germans were holding prisoners. Werdau was where his grandmother lived. These people were starving and Pete would often bring potato’s for the prisoners to eat when he visited his grandmother. One man was so thankful that he carved a beautiful bird out of a block of wood and gave it to Pete.
In 1944 American bombers began to bomb near Eger. The town was near the area where the worlds first jet fighter, the ME 262, was tested. At first he could feel the ground shake, and hear windows rattling from the bombs, but he could not hear the explosions. American bombers were dropping propaganda leaflets and candy for the children. They were also broadcasting on German radio. Germans could be arrested if they were caught picking up the leaflets, candy or if they were caught listening to the American radio broadcasts. As the boys would play, they would occasionally find the wreckage of an American fighter or bomber. On one occasion they found the wreckage of a fighter. One of their friends found a boot with a leg sticking out of it. Pete said that Plexiglas made great torches. They would light pieces on fire and carry them around at night. One night they were walking near a cemetery. By the light of their torches they could see bodies that had been unearthed by a recent bombing attack. They were so frightened they ran all the way home.
Sometime in 1944 the Americans began bombing Pete’s hometown. When the air raid sirens went off the people were supposed to go down into their basements. Pete said that the Lord was looking out for his family on at least four occasions. The first time was after a bombing raid. Pete and his family were walking behind three Hitler Youth soldiers. The Americans had been dropping anti-personnel devices, along with the bombs. The explosives were mixed in with the rubble. One of the soldiers stepped on one, which killed him and seriously wounded the other two soldiers. Pete believes that if these soldiers hadn’t been walking ahead of them, they would have been killed.
Pete found a Hitler Youth knife one day. Several Hitler youth beat him up and took the knife. The 2nd time that Pete’s life was saved was when the air raid sirens sounded while he and Wolfgang were walking in town. Thinking that they had time to run home before the bombs started falling they ran toward their house. American fighters were strafing the streets with their 50 caliber machine guns. Suddenly hands reached out and grabbed the two boys and yanked them inside a building. The door behind them disintegrated from the impact of the bullets.
Pete’s mom secretly listened to American radio broadcasts. Unknown to Gertraute, the man that owned a local grocery store was in the SS. One day
as she was shopping the SS man overheard her tell a woman that she had been listening to the American broadcasts. Pete’s mom was arrested by the Gestapo and taken away for several weeks. In the meantime Pete and his brother were cared for by neighbors. His mom was released but the Germans had plans to send her and the boys to a concentration camp. Ironically a massive bombing attack on Easter Sunday, in April 1945, saved her and the boys from the concentration camp.
On top of that they miraculously survived the bombing. The Germans built a large public bomb shelter near Pete’s house. There were long hallways with rooms on each side that could hold several families. When the air raid sirens sounded Pete, Wolfgang, and Gertraute, ran to the new bomb shelter. Pete said that you could not hear the bombs falling as they are depicted in the movies. When they actually hit the noise is deafening. The air in the shelters was displaced and it became difficult to breathe. Pressure from the bomb concussions would roll over you like a tidal wave. Pete prayed and begged Jesus to stop the bombing but they kept falling and falling. The Americans were dropping 1,000 pound blockbuster bombs and one fell directly on the shelter. Pete’s family, along with others in their room, were buried alive in total darkness. They could hear the screams and moans of the wounded as they choked on the dust swirling in the confined space. Gertraute wet her sanitary napkins and placed them over each of their mouths so they could breathe. The family was buried for 24 hours before rescue workers could dig them out. As they were being pulled out of the rubble Pete could see body parts everywhere and remains were being buried in a mass graves. In a daze they walked down the street and saw a German soldier approaching them on crutches. As he came closer they realized that the mans face had been blown off. He looked like the walking dead as he lifelessly hobbled past them. The decision to use the new bomb shelter saved their lives. Their home was totally destroyed along with the entire town. The only building left standing near their house was a church that was untouched. Because the city was destroyed the Germans had no way to locate Gertraute and her family in order to transport them to the concentration camp. This was the third and fourth time that their lives were saved.
The family was now homeless and all they knew to do was wander until they could find food and shelter. They walked out to the nearby air field where they located German soldiers who were hiding in caves and willing to give them food and water. Hitler killed himself on April 30th and the war ended on May 8, 1945 with the unconditional surrender of Germany. The 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, captured Eger. The word spread that the Americans were treating average Germans with kindness. They were feeding the German refugees and passing out candy to the children. Their wrath was reserved for the Nazi’s.
Pete saw the body of a Nazi official pass by him in a wagon. Gertraute took her children into town and quickly adapted to the American occupation. She proved to be of great value since she spoke perfect English and had been a chef before the war. Once, when Hitler had stopped by her restaurant she had fed him and his entourage. Now the Americans were using her to help feed the thousands of starving German refugees that were wandering the countryside.
At some point Gertraute met her future American husband from Louisiana. His name was Leonard Harrell and he was in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Because of the agreement at Yalta, this area of Germany was to be turned over to the Russians. The German civilians were terrified of falling into the hands of the Russians. They were encouraged to rape German women and thousands of them had been brutally killed and raped already. The Americans loaded up as many civilians as they could pack into their deuce and a half trucks. They evacuated them to the American sector and Leonard made sure that Gertraute and her boys were evacuated. At some point Leonard and Gertraute fell in love. In 1948 they were married after she was notified that Fritz had been killed in Russia.
In 1949 Gertraute and her boys sailed to the New York on a ship called the General M. Darby. They settled with Leonard in Syracuse New York. Pete was 12 years old and bullied by local boys. After he stood up to them a few times they gained a new respect for him. For a long time whenever a plane flew over the boys would run for cover when they were playing outside. Wolfgang would stand up in the middle of his bed and urinate. He was trying to put out the fires in his dreams. For years Gertraute and the boys would horde food because they had known starvation. Pete’s mom wanted her boys to forget their German language and learn English. They were Americans now. If you didn’t know that Pete spent the first 12 years of his life in Germany you wouldn’t realize that he was German. He speaks perfect English. Pete forgot much of the language over the years. However in the 1970’s he visited Germany with his wife Janice. He said that the language suddenly came back to him and Germans could even tell by his dialect that he was from Saxony.
In 1955 Pete joined the U.S. Army and would become a paratrooper. In 1957, the 101st Airborne of WWII fame was reactivated at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Pete was assigned to the 101st. He made many jumps and injured his knees on several occasions. After his discharge he had various jobs in the private and government sector.
In the 1970’s he attended school at MTSU where he met his wife Janice. They would marry in 1975. In the late 1970’s they moved to Clearview Ave. in the in Joywood subdivision where my son Jon became friends with their daughter Heather. It was through their friendship that we met Pete and Janice. When the Roots mini-series was released in 1977 Janice and Pete were inspired to try and find out what happened to Pete’s father Fritz. Gertraute had died in 1981 but a letter that she had left behind spurred Janice to find out what happened to Pete’s father.
The following is from the writings of Janice Jentzsch about these letters and her inquiry into the fate of Fritz Jentzsch, “I had to find an older German, older than my husband to be able to read the letters we had found. My husband was totally shocked and amazed by what we had discovered. First of all, his mother had always told him he had been born on Dec. 10, 1940. The birth certificate was clearly December 10, 1936. Yikes! Then there was this cryptic letter that said (written from one family member to another and perhaps sent in with other letters to Traute) “Fritz is here and you are there, and he can’t hurt you anymore.” This was written around the middle of 1949, after she had come here to live. Another letter said that Fritz had spent Christmas of 1948 in Niederroblingen, that he was under 100 lbs and not expected to live much longer. Another letter, from that other relative and not addressed to Traute but included in the pack was a sentence that read, “I wonder where Traute is? I wonder if she is hiding out so that Fritz won’t find her.” and another letter said that Fritz had gone to Leipzig to see about getting a lawyer for a divorce”.
These letters left Janice with the following conclusions.
- There were other relatives in Germany.
- Fritz Jentzsch was not killed on the Russian front.
- Pete was four years older than he thought he was.
- Fritz might still be alive.
“With the info I now had I wrote the International Red Cross to try and locate Pete’s father. All they did is look up the military records and conclude that he had been captured North of Moscow by the Russians in June of 1944. But he had spent Christmas of 1948 in Niederroblingen, HMMMM. We were dealing with the Iron Curtain back then, but I bravely wrote the various embassies and powers that be to try and find Fritz. Actually I just expected just to find that he had been buried in that town and maybe some folks that knew him or had a picture of him. The American Embassy in Berlin had a Lutheran pastor that they contacted to see if he could search for him. This pastor happened to know the family well and relayed our message to a very happy and surprised Opa Fritz. Yes, he wanted to hear from us, and yes, yes, he would send photos and all”.
Janice goes on to say that Fritz did not know that Eger had been destroyed. He thought his wife had left him. Traute, as Janice called Pete’s mother, was informed that her husband was dead. Fritz was imprisoned in a Russian Gulag near Siberia, where he chopped wood, broke stones, built roads, while on a starvation diet. He kept pictures of Traute and the kids as a way to motivate himself to keep living. His pep talks helped many men to stay alive and to keep them from hanging themselves. Janice believes that Traute knew from these letters that Fritz was alive but she had been gang raped by Russian soldiers for two weeks when she visited her relatives in East Germany. She made a decision to start a new life because she never wanted to take a chance on that ever happening again. Janice believes that the complete story will never be known. Out of the hundreds of thousands of German soldiers captured by the Russians only 6,000 ever saw Germany again.
Fritz’s brother Kurt wasn’t so lucky. He had been a German pilot that was listed as missing in action. His body was never found. Fritz was a rebel and would be arrested by the communists several times because he resented the confiscation of his land. His family had owned a large farm there. In the summer of 1982 Fritz was able to come to the U.S. and reunite with Pete. He was 70 years old at the time. Two years later Pete and Janice were able to visit Niederroblingen and see Fritz one more time, and meet his half brothers before he died in 1988. Pete is taking medication for post traumatic stress disorder. He didn’t realize that he even had it until he tried to eat one time at the old 101st Airborne restaurant in Nashville. The smell of the sand bags triggered his PTSD and he was unable to enter the restaurant. It reminded him of that bomb shelter in Germany.
This is one of the most amazing stories that I have ever known and could easily be made into a movie. It is a story of courage and survival. A story that one can clearly see the hand of God intervening to protect this family. I am honored to know such a man and a true American hero as Pete Jentzsch.