ST. GEORGE — For Gerhard “Gary” Zeddies, a native of Germany who now calls Southern Utah his home, thoughts of freedom are foremost on his mind during this thankful holiday. Before he enjoyed the liberties of being a United States citizen, Zeddies spent most of his adolescence in the Nazi-led organization Hitler Youth.
Zeddies, 86, was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1928. He became part of the Hitler Youth, the sole official youth organization in Germany that was partially a paramilitary organization, he said, at age 10. While German men had a choice to join the Nazi Party, he said that all boys were required to become part of the Hitler Youth.
Zeddies learned everything associated with the philosophy and ideology of German Nazi Party Leader Adolf Hitler and was made leader for the Hitler Youth at the age of 15. Leaders were directed to teach other boys of their same age and, Zeddies said, he taught his group Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf” – which translated mean “My Struggle” – Hitler’s recount of his youth and ideas for Germany’s future that he concluded from German history, the theories of German philosopher Karl Marx and the Jewish race.
As members of the Hitler Youth, Zeddies said, they would march in the streets and sing patriotic songs.
“I wore my uniform with pride,” he said. ” It was a tan colored shirt, black tie, white knee socks and dark shorts.”
Zeddies said Hitler was a very charismatic person and it was easy to be persuaded by him. At the time, he said, he believed he was doing what was right by being a part of the Hitler Youth.
“I was doing the right thing for the country, just like any American should be very patriotic about this country,” Zeddies said. “I was thinking about that country, about Germany. I was very proud of it. We did not know of any atrocities in the concentration camps. I can swear to this, nobody knew – not my dad, my uncle, my aunt, or neighbors.”
Ninety-five percent of the German people were unaware of the camps that Hitler enforced to exterminate the Jewish people during World War II, Zeddies said. He did not know how the German soldiers who were involved in such acts got away with it, he said. The Nazis did not compare to the roles he saw within the Hitler Youth.
“I met some of (the Nazis),” he said. “They were not good people.”
Zeddies grew up playing with Jewish youth. He noticed they started disappearing, he said, and briefly thought ‘I wonder where they went.’ But he did not realize until after the Americans came to Munich and he saw the camps that the disappearance of the Jews was a result of their movement to concentration camps.
At age 16, Zeddies was drafted to serve in World War II. He carried a panzerfaust, an anti-tank grenade launcher, behind a tiger tank, he said. At that time, he signed up, he said, but was not admitted into the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, which is a group of fierce tank fighters all made up of the Hitler Youth. A short time later, the British captured Zeddies and held him prisoner of war for approximately six months.
Zeddies recalled July 24, 1943, the Battle of Hamburg, which was the day Royal Air Force Bomber Command and United States Army Air Forces started its eight days and seven nights of bombing on the city. About 50,000 people died the first night and 25,000 more the next night, he said.
Food and shelter was lacking for German citizens after the war and Zeddies went back to work for the company where he had served his apprenticeship as a tool and die maker, or machinist, working on the gyroscope for the Germans’ V-2 rocket.
“Following the end of the war came a very depressing and dangerous time,” Zeddies said. “ The company I was working for now had to work for England. I was making 75 marks per week and a loaf of bread cost 1,000 marks. The Black Market was everywhere.”
In 1951, Canada was drafting people from around the world for employment, Zeddies said, and he took the opportunity and worked as a dishwasher for six months while learning English by watching “It’s Howdy Doody Time” and “Captain Kangaroo” on TV. He then moved to the U.S. in 1953 where he met his wife, Ann Marie, in 1959.
In 1965, Zeddies went through a six-month education course to learn about the United States Constitution to become a U.S. citizen. He said the FBI also interrogated him for two hours about his affiliation with the Hitler Youth.
“They asked me what I thought of Hitler and I said ‘He was good in the beginning. He created the Volkswagen and the autobahn, but then he went insane or something.’”
Two months later, Zeddies, along with 200 other immigrants, were called in and took the Oath of Allegiance to become a citizen. Remembering, he said:
Then we all did, for the first time, the Pledge of Allegiance as American citizens and, for the first time, we sang the national anthem, and we all cried.
It was a very emotional day, Zeddies said, and he is grateful for the freedom that he now has. Today, he said, many U.S. citizens seem to lack pride for their country. Anyone that complains about this country should go live in another country for a few years and they will realize what freedoms are present in the U.S., he said. He feels very good about the country, he said, and hopes it will maintain its sovereignty.
“The freedom we have here is incredible,” Zeddies said. “All I think about is how grateful I am for this country. It’s all about the freedom and agency that we have here.”
Zeddies, who used to smoke three packs of cigarettes and drink 10 cups of coffee per day, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he moved to the U.S. The missionaries asked him to get baptized without asking him to quit his habits, Zeddies said, but he knows that is not the practice nowadays. After his baptism he quit smoking and drinking coffee because his tobacco lost its appeal to him, he said. He has much gratitude for the perspective on life that the religion brought him, he said, and that he is allowed that religious freedom as a U.S. citizen.
“I left that part of my life, and I left the part of my life that was in the Hitler Youth, “ he said, “I came over and changed completely from where I was to where I am today, and I am a very patriotic American citizen.”
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