By Joe Pinchot
SHARON — Anton Geiser’s life has played out like many in the Shenango Valley.
The native of Yugoslavia — now part of Croatia — grew up on a farm, broke his mother’s heart when he came to the United States, worked at Sharon Steel Corp. for 31 years, and raised three children.
Now 81, Geiser has lived quietly in the Shenango Valley for 47 years, 45 of them at his current address, 411 Cedar Ave. in Sharon.
What separates Geiser from all those other immigrants who have passed through the area, according to the federal government, is that he was a concentration camp guard for the German army during World War II.
Even though he claimed to have never harmed or mistreated a prisoner, and had no knowledge of what atrocities went on in the camps where he served, Geiser, assigned to the Nazi Waffen SS, was so ashamed of his service that he kept it to himself. He did not reveal it to his children until the government started investigating him.
With the government seeking to revoke Geiser’s citizenship and deport him, the question that a federal judge is being asked to answer is simple: Did Geiser’s service as a concentration camp guard render him inadmissible under laws that existed when he came to the United States in 1956?
The government says concentration camp guards could not be admitted, period.
Geiser’s attorneys say the State Department allowed concentration camp guards who did not commit atrocities to be admitted to the United States.
Both sides have asked U.S. District Court Judge David S. Cercone, Pittsburgh, to make a decision based on the information they have developed.
Yugoslavian farm boy
Geiser was born Oct. 17, 1924, in Djak-Selci, a town of about 1,600 in what is now in the western part of Croatia. He was reared on a farm, without electricity or machinery, that grew wheat, corn and potatoes. He had one brother and three sisters.
His family was ethnic German — as was about one-third of the town — but the town also had people of Croatian, Hungarian and Slovakian background. The family spoke German at home, but Geiser became fluent in Croatian and Serbian and understands some Hungarian.
He went to school only four years. The classrooms were segregated according to ethnicity, but the languages of other town residents were taught to all students.
Each nationality also had its own “home” in town, a place for socializing and meetings.
The nationalities got along well together — they all worshipped at the Roman Catholic church the Geiser family attended — and even banded together to try to thwart a Tito government policy of kidnapping dissidents.
“Come night time, he would come and pick you up and that would be a one-way trip,” Geiser said.
The town formed a watch group called Ortsschuetz, made up of armed citizens who patrolled the town.
“They were walking through town to make sure if anybody tried to sneak into town and kidnap somebody, they would help to prevent that.”
As a teen-ager Geiser joined the German Youth, a group he said he had to join. “If you didn’t join the rest, you wouldn’t be respected,” he said.
The group had no political bent, getting together for singing and dancing. “We didn’t know anything about politics. We didn’t have no newspapers. We live out on the farm, and you work from sunrise to sunset. That’s all you know.”
Pick your poison
Geiser was 17 when he got a letter informing him to show up for a military physical, which he did in September 1942. Other ethnic Germans in town received the same letter, he said.
Although Geiser did not say who sent the letter, his defense team has noted the Nazis had ordered that all ethnic Germans around the world serve in the German military.
Geiser said he knew he would have to join either the German or the Yugoslavian armies. There was no clear-cut choice for him, he said.
Tito’s Communists had tortured and murdered civilians, including neighbors and cousins of his, while the Germany military had taken people to work as forced laborers, and had sent a colony of Gypsies who lived near his town to concentration camps.
“The Tito army ... they were worse,” he said, so he went with the Germany army, which he believed was fighting the Communists.
Geiser, whose father had served two years in the Serbian army, said he considered himself to have been drafted.
“When the government calls on you, the answer is you have to please the government. Otherwise, you’ll be in trouble.”
Geiser received a letter a couple of weeks after his physical, notifying him to report for military training. He traveled to Breslau, Poland — also known as Wroclaw — and was issued a uniform and an 8 mm rifle with bayonet.
Infantry training included use of a rifle, machine gun, pistol and hand grenades, and marching. The new soldiers also attended classes in Nazi ideology.
“They tell you how good the leadership is from the past, how good it is for everybody, and what they try to accomplish and make everything right,” Geiser said.
Geiser recalled a mass gathering at which he probably swore an oath.
“But, what they were saying, it didn’t penetrate my heart,” Geiser said.
Geiser was made part of a replacement unit that left Breslau Dec. 17 for Zitomir, Russia, arriving on Dec. 23. The unit never saw combat. Geiser was told he was to be sent to Germany to guard prisoners. He returned to Germany in January 1943.
Geiser arrived at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on Feb. 7 to begin guard training. The training was nearly identical to what he had received in Breslau, except that the soldiers were told how to behave with prisoners.
“Did they tell you how to stop a prisoner who was trying to run away?” asked Adam S. Fels, senior trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigation.
“Shoot him,” Geiser said.
Sometime in the spring, Geiser began guarding prisoners in the concentration camp, which had a wall topped with barbed wire, and an electric fence. He said he never saw the camp’s gas chambers or heard that the camp had any.
The work had little variation. He either escorted prisoners — maybe 1,000 at a time, accompanied by a procession of guards — to and from work, or guarded the camp, sometimes in a tower. Geiser said he did not know what kind of work the prisoners did once they entered the work building.
Geiser said he only saw a prisoner harmed once. He was escorting prisoners to work and could see ahead some friction among prisoners.
“So the one prisoner couldn’t take it anymore and he walked out,” Geiser said. “So, the guards start to fire on that person, and he walked maybe 15, 20 feet before he fell. I was very upset. I did not like it. I thought to myself, ‘We all have good days, some days are maybe not as good. So, that poor soul, maybe had something he couldn’t take no more.’ I thought to myself, ‘That life could be saved. They could stop the prisoner and bring him back into his ... where he came from.’ He didn’t have to shoot him. I did not like it then, and I hate it today, but there’s nothing I could do. If I could do anything, I maybe be shot myself.”
Geiser said he does not know what happened to the prisoner.
Badges of dishonor
The prisoners wore badges to distinguish what kind of prisoner they were. Geiser said he knew political prisoners were housed at the camp — they had red badges — but did not know what the other badges represented. He said he was surprised how many Germans were housed at the camp.
There only was one instance of anti-Semitism, when a group of prisoners made fun of a Jew.
Geiser went into the army as schuetze, which he described as a rankless designation meaning “just a plain soldier.” The government says schuetze is equivalent to the U.S. Army rank of private.
While at Sachsenhausen, he was made oberschuetze, which the government says is a rank between private and private first class. Geiser said it was not a promotion, he did not receive more pay and his duties did not change.
“It’s just — they respect,” he said. “You do your job with no friction.”
“I tried to do my best, whatever my duties were.”
In the fall, Geiser was given new orders.
“We were told we were going to pick prisoners up in Buchenwald to take to Arolsen,” he said.
He began service at Arolsen, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp that was known for its officer training school, but with a very different atmosphere than Sachsenhausen. Geiser said he noticed something was different when he arrived at Buchenwald.
“They’re teaching and telling us in Sachsenhausen, ‘Keep your distance from them people, don’t come in contact with them.’ Yet, in Buchenwald, they put us on a truck. I’m sitting next to the prisoner. Now, if they’re that bad, what, they going to electrocute me, or what?”
At Arolsen, the guards lived in the same building — a former machine shop — as the prisoners, divided by a single door with a glass window — and the door was unlocked most of the time.
“That’s where my mind telling me there was so much propaganda, what they were telling us,” Geiser said, adding there were no walls, fences or towers.
The guards were free to talk with the prisoners, who were barbers, shoemakers, tailors, mechanics, horse trainers and other professions. They also were mostly Germans who had been sent there for their political beliefs.
Geiser became close friends with some of the prisoners and felt a kinship to their predicaments.
“I didn’t like where I was, and I know they did not like where they were, either, but they couldn’t help me, I couldn’t help them.”
Loaded guns were not permitted in the living quarters — even for the guards.
He never saw any guards hurting prisoners in Arolsen.
The atmosphere changed when a new crop of officers was brought in, former Luftwaffe members who were made SS just for this purpose.
“And when they came, they had a different feeling towards the prisoners than myself and my friends,” Geiser said. “So, more than one time, I have to look over the shoulders.”
The relationship between the prisoners and guards was so close that a prisoner once kept Geiser from getting into trouble. He was guarding the living quarters one night and had fallen asleep when an officer from the officer school rang the door bell.
“Here comes a prisoner, he jumped out of his bed, and it was a German prisoner, came running,” Geiser said. “He said, ‘Posten, guard, somebody is at the door.’ Well, I jumped up, I went to the door, but that guy, he couldn’t prove what I was doing, right?”
Near the end of the war, the Arolsen prisoners were transferred back to Buchenwald.
“The front, the American, British, from the west, are closing in. It’s time for us to leave, to take the prisoners back to Buchenwald,” Geiser said he learned on March 28, 1945.
Geiser became a guard at Buchenwald, but only from March 29 to April 11, the day prisoners took over the camp. The U.S. military arrived later in the day.
Geiser followed the crowd out of Buchenwald and wandered around the countryside with other former guards. He buried his guns in a forest.
After the war, Geiser met up with one of his former Arolsen prisoners, whom he called “Willy the Chef.” Geiser was still unsure of what he was going to do. Willy asked Geiser if he was afraid.
“I said, ‘Afraid or not, I cannot get out of my shoes,’ you know.”
Willy told Geiser, “If anybody try to give you a hard time, you come see us. We will take care of the problem.”
Nowhere to go
Geiser decided he was going to surrender to one of the invading armies and went to a beer garden in Tautendorf, where he was told he would be picked up by Americans. The truck never came.
He went to a Red Cross station and another German soldier told him to get rid of his uniform. He walked to Camburg, knocked on a house and asked for civilian clothes for himself and his two friends. The family gave them the clothes and the ex-soldiers buried their uniforms in woods.
Deciding to head to Arolsen because they were familiar with the area, the men stopped in nearby Volkmarsen on April 25, 1945. Geiser stayed there into the fall of 1946, working on the farm of the uncle of a girlfriend he had met while serving in Arolsen.
All for love
Geiser’s parents had moved to Bavaria and he went to visit them in 1946. They asked him to stay. He didn’t want to because he had a girlfriend in Volkmarsen.
His mother also had a girl in mind for him.
“And so I thought, ‘Well, mothers are always right,’ ” Geiser said.
He moved back home and worked on a farm until the fall of 1948. However, his girlfriend was in Austria. He went to be with her, but was caught crossing the border illegally and was jailed for 12 days.
“It was worth it,” he said.
He settled in Voecklabruck and worked a succession of jobs — for a construction company, in a hardware store, in a machine shop, and then in an asbestos factory owned by a Jewish man.
He married his girlfriend, Theresia.
A mother’s lament
In 1956, a change of the Austrian citizenship law prompted him to want to go to America. He had relatives in the Shenango Valley and expected he could work in one of the local mills, because his relatives worked in them.
While Theresia’s parents came with them to the United States, Geiser’s parents stayed in Bavaria and were unhappy with him. He tried to console his mother, telling her he still was her son.
“She said, ‘Son, a person has ten fingers. Either one you cut will hurt,’ ” he said.
Prior to being given a visa to come here, Geiser was interviewed twice. Geiser said he does not remember if he was asked if he was a member of the Waffen SS, but he said he would have admitted that he was.
“I wouldn’t lie to them,” he said.
Geiser said, “I believe the question was, ‘Did you serve in the Germany military, German army?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Geiser said he did not think the United States government would have held his service in the Waffen SS against him because he knew of other members of the Waffen SS who had immigrated to the Shenango Valley.
However, Geiser admitted they did not work in concentration camps.
A hidden shame
Geiser said he was not asked if he worked in a concentration camp, and admitted he might not have disclosed that if he had been asked.
“I was ashamed of myself,” he said. “I was not proud where I served and I didn’t like it then and I didn’t like it now. And I didn’t have the strength to tell anybody. Like I said, I didn’t talk to nobody for all them years.”
Fels asked Geiser if he thought it would have been bad if Geiser had acknowledged his time as a camp guard.
“It’s possible it could be bad but, if he could see how I felt and how I expressed myself, he might seen it different,” Geiser said.
Geiser said he did not want people to think he was a “rotten individual” for his camp service. “I was not” a rotten person, he said.
Coming to America
Granted his visa, Geiser boated to New York, then arrived in Youngstown on Oct. 28, 1956. A cousin picked him up and took him to Farrell.
On Nov. 8, he started working at Sharon Steel.
Join the club
Fels questioned Geiser about his citizenship application. When asked for the clubs, organizations or societies he belonged to, Geiser put down St. Anthony Christian Catholic Church, United Steelworkers of America and Maennerchor Club.
“You didn’t put down Waffen SS, correct?” Fels asked.
“Why should that be put down?” Geiser responded. He said that while the SS was an organization, he did not voluntarily join it.
Geiser, who was granted citizenship on March 27, 1962, settled at 411 Cedar Ave. on June 11, 1960.
He worked 31 years at Sharon Steel, 10 years in the blast furnace and 21 in the boiler house. He retired Feb. 1, 1987.
Geiser said he lives by something his father taught him: “Try to respect and be respected.”