Harriet Mendels was born in the Netherlands to a large Jewish family that was assimilated into Dutch society. Harriet and her brother spent their childhood in the seaside town of Scheveningen, Holland.
Her grandfather Pierre, a journalist, traveled through Germany for business in the late 1930s and witnessed the rise and adoption of Nazism along with its antisemitic propaganda. He warned his daughter and son-in-law of the impending danger, urging them to leave Holland while there was still time. Reluctantly, they decided to follow his advice.
The Mendels family – Harriet and her parents, brother, and two aunts – were able to get exit visas from Holland. They also contacted a distant relative in the United States who provided an affidavit of sponsorship for the family. They left Holland and arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, in May 1939.
Harriet grew up in New York, learning English and adjusting to a new life far from her home country. She was always aware that she was Jewish and occasionally encountered antisemitism in the United States.
Harriet is a mother and grandmother and has been a teacher, activist, local politician, and author. In 2018, aware of rising Holocaust denial, she decided to tell her story, and worked with the Holocaust Center to research her family history more in depth to become a member of the Center’s Speakers Bureau.
Bertie was born in Amsterdam, Holland in April of 1936. In January 1943, Bertie and her mother were ordered out of their home and transported to a theater that was being used as a temporary jail. Imprisoned and waiting for transport elsewhere, her mother made a phone call to Bertie’s father (they were divorced) to ask if he could help get Bertie out of jail. Through networking, her father was able to obtain help. One evening when Bertie was walking with other children in front of the theatre, she was abducted by someone from the Dutch Underground. The next morning Bertie was picked up by her non-Jewish stepmother who risked her life to take Bertie to her sister’s family in the Eastern Netherlands. She was “hidden” in their home for almost two and a half years. During that time, Bertie was not allowed to move outside of the confines of the house and hid every time company came to visit. Finally, in early April 1945, the town Bertie was living in was liberated by Canadian forces. After liberation, she returned to Amsterdam in the late spring and entered school for the first time as a fourth grader.
During the war, Bertie’s mother was sent to Westerbork (a transit camp in the eastern part of the Netherlands), and then to Vught and Theresienstadt concentration camps. Her mother survived the camps and also returned to Amsterdam in the summer of 1945.
Bertie’s father was hidden for several years in an attic room of a house in a city in the center part of the Netherlands. He was liberated by American Forces in September 1944. He was an attorney, spoke English very well, and thus served as a liaison between the American Army and the Dutch Government. Bertie finished high school and college in Holland. In 1959, she and her husband immigrated to the United States. A year later, they moved to Seattle.
Henry Haas was born to two Jewish families in Berlin Germany on April 8, 1938. In July, 1938, his parents Ivan Hans Haas (later John) and Gerda resolved to escape but had no way, literally, to immigrate to any country in the world. They fled for 12 months, traveling first to Slovakia, then the Czech Republic, Italy, Holland and France. Finally, in July 1939, with the assistance of a Jewish Refugee organization in Paris France, they were able to secure tickets on a ship to Shanghai, China. This was the only port in the world, which, from 1933 to 1941, admitted approximately 17,000 Jews. The Haas family ship journey took three weeks, traveling from Marseille, France to Port Said Egypt, through the Suez Canal to Djibouti on the horn of Africa, and eventually to the port of Shanghai. A city of 6 million at that time, the Haas family arrived in Shanghai without funds, in a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and encountered an entirely foreign culture.
The following eight years were spent under Japanese occupation, living in an area that became the “Ghetto of Hongkew”, with their home being a single small room – no bathroom, no toilet, and no kitchen.
In 1947, two years after the end of WWII, the family arrived as non-English speaking refugees, in San Francisco. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), helped the Haas family to come to America. First they settled in Portland Oregon, then Centralia Washington, and, finally, in Tacoma Washington.
Kate, Henry’s wife, born and brought up near London, England, came to Tacoma at age nineteen for a visit and stayed. Kate Haas has written the Haas family story in great detail. Together, Henry and Kate, with the use of photos, maps, and historic family documents, tell the story. Henry and his late mother Gerda, who lived to age 98, told this story for many years to school classes and other groups in the Tacoma area. Now, Henry has joined the speaker’s bureau to further share this memoir of anti-Semitism, during the Holocaust.
Henry graduated from the University of Puget Sound and obtained a law degree from the University of Washington in 1962. He continues practicing law to this day.
Andrea and Joanna D’Asaro and their mother Barbara Sachs D’Asaro tell the story of Barbara’s childhood in Nazi Germany, and her escape as a young girl.
Barbara was born Bärbel Sachs near Rostock, Germany on August 18, 1927. She was adopted by a Jewish couple, Erich and Johanna Sachs, who lived in Berlin.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazi regime made life increasingly difficult for Jews in Germany. As a result, Barbara’s parents bribed officials to destroy documents about her adoption, which noted that a non-Jewish child had been adopted into a Jewish family. Barbara lived a happy childhood as her parents attempted to protect her from the growing danger they faced. Despite their best efforts, Barbara was still exposed to Nazi propaganda. She experienced the rapid takeover of Nazi ideology and policies into everyday life, including schools and youth organizations.
With the escalation of persecution in Germany, Barbara’s parents decided that for their family’s safety, it would be best to leave the country. Although Barbara’s status, being non-Jewish by birth, may have been safe, her parents’ certainly was not. They were able to find two sponsors in New York City who would support them in their move to the United States.
The Sachs family arrived by ship in New York harbor in 1938 and began to build a life in New York City. Barbara attended Oberlin College in Ohio and later Cornell University. At Cornell, Barbara met her future husband Arthur D’Asaro, and they married in 1953. Barbara and Arthur had four children. Barbara used a master’s degree in Nutrition to direct health oriented classes, and Arthur used his doctorate in physics in his job at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Barbara’s parents had some relatives who scattered all over the world due to the Holocaust, and others who were murdered by the Nazis.
In 2017 Andrea, a teacher, helped Barbara put her family story together into a presentation for classrooms. With the help of the Holocaust Center, Barbara, Joanna, and Andrea are now part of the Speakers Bureau to share Barbara’s unique experience during World War II.