- Irene Hasenberg was born in Berlin, Germany on Dec. 11, 1930.
- John, her father (Pappi), served in the German military during World War I (1914-1918).
- Werner, Irene’s brother, was two years older.
- In 1937, the Hasenbergs moved from Berlin to Amsterdam in the Netherlands to escape Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party and government. John had his bank taken away from him by the Nazi government.
- John found a job with the American Express Company in Amsterdam.
- The first few years were not too bad. But in May 1940, Germany invaded many countries in western Europe, including the Netherlands.
- Life became difficult and then impossible because of restrictions placed on Dutch Jews.
- In June 1943, the Hasenbergs were deported to Westerbork, a transit camp. In February 1944, they were moved to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. They were saved from Auschwitz and almost certain death because Pappi had secured passports from Equador.
- Conditions at Bergen-Belsen were deplorable. In January 1945, Irene briefly saw Anne Frank there.
- The Hasenbergs were freed on Jan. 21, 1945 but Pappi died on the train to Switzerland. Werner and her mother were very sick. Once in Switzerland, only Irene could travel farther.
- Swiss authorities sent her to a displaced persons camp in Algeria (north Africa). In December 1945, she boarded a Liberty Ship for her journey to America. Her mother’s cousins lived in New York City and took care of her.
- Irene’s mother and brother came to America in June 1946. They had not seen each other for 18 months.
- In 2019, this author learned that Phyllis Gould, a Rosie the Riveter ship welder at the Kaiser shipyards in California, most likely welded the deck house of the Liberty Ship Irene took to America. The deck house contained the dining room where Irene slept because of rough seas. (watch first video below)
April 13, 2020 – This week a 75th anniversary will be honored that few will notice. On April 15, 1945, British troops liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. It was too late for Anne Frank and Margot, her sister, who died there just weeks earlier. Irene “Reni” Hasenberg and her father (Pappi), her mother (Mutti) and Werner, her brother, had been freed from Bergen-Belsen as exchange prisoners on Jan. 21, 1945.
Irene’s journey to freedom culminated in early December 1945 when alone without her family, she boarded an American Liberty Ship for a trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Baltimore.
Walking onto the S.S. Cleveland Forbes, docked at the port of Bougie, Algeria, Irene, 15, had not been home since June 20, 1943. On that day, Nazi Gestapo forcibly took the Hasenberg family from their apartment in Amsterdam and deported them to the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. From Westerbork, tens of thousands of Dutch Jews were sent on trains to Auschwitz and other concentration camps never to be heard from again.
Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands
The Hasenbergs were spared almost certain death because Pappi had sent away for Ecuadorian passports and miraculously, the documents were forwarded to them at Westerbork. The passports were not valid for travel but as exchange documents to repatriate German civilians or prisoners of war.
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany
Almost eight months after being taken from their home, the Hasenbergs were sent from Westerbork to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northern Germany. They were hopeful the transfer meant they would soon be exchanged. About 10,000 Jews with passports were prisoners at Bergen-Belsen during World War II and the Holocaust.
It was February 1944, months before the Allies launched the D-Day invasion (June 6, 1944) for the final offensive to defeat Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Days turned to weeks and then weeks to months at Bergen-Belsen for the Hasenbergs. They had to endure long roll calls each day, which Irene describes as torture.
Pappi, Mutti and Werner all had to work. At 14, Irene stayed in their barracks all day. There was very little food to eat. Due to hard work, abuse by the guards, and little food, Pappi became ill. Mutti’s health also declined due to work and starvation. Werner’s foot became infected.
Irene met Hanneli Goslar at Bergen-Belsen. Her father had been a government official in Amsterdam so her family had passports. They were together in Bergen-Belsen’s Star Camp. Hanneli took care of Gigi, her little sister, because her mother had died during childbirth. Irene often helped her.
Hanneli and Irene see Anne Frank and throw her a bundle of clothes
On Jan. 19, 1945, Hanneli rushed to Irene outside their barracks. She had seen Anne Frank. Anne and Margot, her sister, were at Bergen-Belsen in the women’s camp living outside in tents. They had been sent there in November from Auschwitz. Anne was desperate for clothes and food.
That night Hanneli and Irene threw Anne a bundle of clothes with a bit of bread over the fence. It was against the rules but they took the risk anyway. Another person grabbed the package. Hanneli told Anne to give them a couple of days and they would try to throw her another bundle.
The Hasenbergs are freed
The next day, the Hasenbergs were notified they were to be exchanged. They had to report to the doctor to be cleared to travel to Switzerland, a neutral country during World War II. Barely alive, Mutti and Pappi made it to the train with Irene and Werner. Only 2,000 of the 10,000 prisoners with passports at Bergen-Belsen were ever exchanged.
The train had a large red cross on the side, a sign Mutti told Irene meant freedom was real. They were headed to Switzerland where the exchange would take place. It would take days to get there.
Irene and Werner devoured a hearty soup that Red Cross volunteers served. Mutti and Pappi were too sick to eat. Irene already knew of the Red Cross. The family had occasionally received Red Cross care packages while prisoners at Bergen-Belsen. When asked during an interview, Irene said she does not know why or how they were on a Red Cross list to receive the packages that contained food and hygienic products. She does remember the boxes were addressed to them.
On Jan. 23, 1945, Pappi told Irene he was not going to make it. Leaning against her, he died on the train. His body was taken off the train at Biberach in Germany and placed on a bench at the station. Pinned to his coat was his name and date of death. Local residents buried him.
Once in Switzerland, Mutti was near death and rushed to a hospital. Werner was taken to a makeshift hospital to treat his foot which looked gangrenous.
Irene begins her journey to America alone without her family
With refugees everywhere, Swiss authorities told Irene she could not stay there. All alone, she was put on a train to the port of Marseille, France where she boarded a ship bound for Algeria. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) operated a refugee camp in Philippeville on the Mediterranean Sea. Irene would be going there.
Irene made friends at the camp and learned to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. She loved being in the water. She eventually received word that Mutti and Werner had survived. They began sending each other letters and pictures.
In late fall 1945, the camp was closed so Irene was moved to Algiers, the capital of Algeria. She was there waiting for a ship to America. Mutti had a cousin living in New York City who agreed to take care of Irene.
Irene’s journey to America on a Liberty Ship
Finding spots for passengers on ships was difficult. In early December, Irene and a small group of women were told to travel to the port of Bougie, Algeria. They would be leaving for America the next day on the S.S. Cleveland Forbes, a Liberty Ship.
Irene vividly recalls the harrowing drive through the desert to the port and the 21-day voyage.
She was 15 and still alone on another adventure. She had always wanted to be like Heidi, a popular young heroine in books in the 1930s, but not under these circumstances. Her father had died and she had been separated from Mutti and Werner for almost one year.
One day a doctor on the ship told her that some Liberty Ships were breaking apart. Stay near the engine, he said. If the ship breaks, that part of the ship will likely make it to shore. Irene was terrified.
Irene describes the voyage in her 2018 autobiography, Shores Beyond Shores: from Holocaust to Hope, My True Story. There were frequent storms on the ocean.
“During the worst tempests, all of us refugees were instructed to sleep on benches in the dining room, which was closer to the decks and lifeboats than our sleeping quarters. One night, silverware crashed to the floor when the roiling sea opened an unsecured drawer. I stayed awake, listening for the sound of the ship breaking in half as the forks and spoons rattled back and forth across the floor.” (p. 254.)
After three weeks on the Atlantic Ocean, the ship arrived in Baltimore on Christmas Eve.
“Days later, under a brittle, blue clear sky, we carved our way into Baltimore Harbor, slicing through frozen ocean until we couldn’t go any further. I climbed into a lifeboat that was lowered into the watery space between ice floes, and stepped ashore: it was December 25, 1945. I was a fifteen-year-old refugee with a sixth grade education, broken English, and a small knapsack of belongings.” (Shores Beyond Shores, p. 254)
Her distant relatives and New York City welcomed her with open arms. She was finally free and had a home. Werner and Mutti joined her in June 1946. She still remembers hugging Werner.
S.S. Cleveland Forbes and Rosie the Welder
The S.S. Cleveland Forbes that brought Irene safely to America was one of 2,710 Liberty Ships built from 1942-1945 during the Arsenal of Democracy. Less than 12 broke apart although many had cracked. To speed up production, the ships were welded instead of riveted. Engineers concluded the problem was a combination of the type of steel used and bitterly cold water temperatures the ships encountered. Even though the ships were welded, Rosie had a vital role.
Rosie the Riveter had a sister – Rosie the Welder
Phyllis Gould was one of the first six women welders hired in 1942 at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California. After training, she welded Liberty Ship deck houses, three story structures where the dining room was located. After completion, the deck houses were transported to the ship under construction and attached.
Detailed records for all Liberty Ships were kept. The S.S. Cleveland Forbes was made in 1944 at the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, one of 747 ships made at the shipyards during the war. Phyllis likely welded the deck house where Irene spent those nights during rough seas. In a phone interview with Phyllis in January 2020, she said it was amazing to learn about Irene and to think she had welded her ship. Of course, the deck house on Irene’s ship didn’t come apart, she said. They took great pride in their work and the Kaiser Shipyards were known for very high standards, she added.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 75th-anniversary of British soldiers liberating Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, scheduled to take place this week at Bergen-Belsen with Irene as keynote speaker, has been canceled.
Related Story: Students Give Voice to Rare Music Found at Auschwitz
- Why did the Hasenberg family move to Amsterdam?
- What happened in May 1940 that changed life for Irene and her family?
- During what time period was the Hasenberg family held at concentration camps?
- When were the Hasenbergs freed from Bergen-Belsen and why were they freed?
- Why was Irene alone after she, Mutti and Werner arrived in Switzerland?
- Irene will be the first to say she is a Holocaust survivor, not a victim. How do you think she summoned the strength to survive such a terrible ordeal for 18 months?
- What lessons in survival does Irene have for all of us today?
- How important was Irene’s family to her during the Holocaust?
- How does Irene’s message of “Never a Bystander” apply to your life today?