By Amelia Anderson
When Irene Hasenberg entered The Washington Hebrew Congregation’s stage, her piercing blue eyes and wise demeanor alone were enough to quiet down a room full of teenage Hebrew school students.
When Hasenberg was 13 years old, her family home was invaded by Nazis and taken to Camp Westerbork in The Netherlands- their first stop on their battle for freedom from the Holocaust.
Irene described her childhood as idyllic. For the first six years of her life, her family of four shared a flat in Berlin, Germany with her grandparents, or as she called them- Omi and Opa.
Everyone knew her as Reni, the young spirited girl.
“We celebrated Jewish holidays and our birthdays with relatives,” she said, “always gathering together around the dinner table to eat challah, sing our favorite Hebrew songs and drink more hot chocolate. Our voices were not very good, but who cared? We were together.”
Unfortunately, Hasenberg was forced to understand that everything good comes to end end a little too early.
In 1936 her father, John Hasenberg, moved their family to Amsterdam, in hopes of escaping the war, and beginning the series of sacrifices their family would have to make. In her memoir, Shores Beyond Shores, she recounts the moment she found out she’d be separated from her grandparents, called by the children, Omi and Opa. Omi and Opa told her and Werner that they “‘won’t be coming. We didn’t get the permits-the right papers- we need. We’ll stay here and watch after things. Until you can come home again.’”
Unbeknownst at the time, moving day would be the last time they’d ever see their beloved grandparents.
Being proactive, Irene’s parents reached out to a friend, hoping he’d be able to obtain Ecuadorian passports for them. The goal was to boost the status of their family if they ever ended up in a concentration camp. They had heard, prisoners with passports could be traded for German prisoners of war. The Hasenbergs still didn’t have the passports six years later, when Irene’s home was invaded and they were taken to Camp Westerbork.
Months later, a package arrived to the camp addressed to the family. The passports. Irene’s family was overjoyed to be granted a sliver of hope in these difficult times.
“‘Pasaports,’ Irene writes in her book Werner saying.‘That looks like Spanish. They must be the passports.’ ‘I can’t believe it,’ mumbled Papi as he flipped through them, looking at every page. Most were blank, yet he stared at them in wonder.”
Westerbork was known as a gateway camp of sorts. New prisoners went there before moving to larger camps with horrible reputations.
That’s not to say the conditions were accommodating. “There was never privacy,” she wrote. “The worst were the head lice. I started itching and scratching my head, even in my sleep. I tried washing my hair, but the cold water and lack of soap couldn’t get rid of them.” Within weeks, everyone’s bodies were invested with lice.
The passports kept them in Westerbork longer than most. Nearly a year passed before a luxury train came to take them.
“We were on a nice train and not in cattle cars like the ones that had taken us to Westerbork,” she said.
The train arrived at Camp Bergen-Belsen, a massive camp that would quickly become riddled with sickness and death.
Not yet old enough to work, Hasenberg collected dinner from officers each day before Werner and her parents came home from working their labor jobs. She’d camp out in their bunks waiting for them to return.
“Hunger sat beside me, whispering in my ear to eat it all,” she wrote.
Every day, without fail, people died during Apell, or role call, when all the prisoners lined up outside, regardless of weather, sometimes for hours. People who collapsed were beaten to death, she said, when they didn’t have the strength to stand up. Even the sickest had to stand in the sometimes freezing air.
Hasenberg watched her family grow weaker and weaker, but they remained grateful that at least they were still together. Then her mother fell very ill, and her father came back from work more and more worn down each day.
“They couldn’t take care of us anymore,” she said. “My brother and I had to take care of them and that’s one of the hardest things, we had to stay alive to keep them alive.” Irene said.
Taking care of her mother became a full time job.
“I was at Mutti’s side through her pain, fevers, chills, and delirium. She never complained, though she apologized a lot.”
On January 20, 1945, the Hasenbergs learned they’d be freed and traded for German prisoners. The only thing left was to go to the doctor to be cleared medically to leave.
Her Pappi had recently endured a beating at work, so getting both him and Mutti walking to see the doctor would be a challenge. At this point, Hasenberg’s own health problem was one she had in common with every other prisoner: severe malnourishment. Even Warner had an infected foot, making it hard for him to walk.
She and her brother went together and were both checked off. Later that night when Pappi got home, they couldn’t get Mutti out of bed to go and she certainly couldn’t present herself as she was- the doctors could tell she was sick. Resolving to check her out later, Irene escorted Pappi, struggling to support his weight. Then the miracle happened. The doctor mistook Irene for her mother, Gertrude Hasenberg, and she got cleared as her mother. Suddenly the whole family was permitted to leave.
Sadly, Irene’s brave father passed away on the train to freedom.
“He hugged me,” she said. “He had comforted me. He had always played with me. He leaned in close when people took photos of us. He had been so strong for so long. How could I live without him? I collapsed into Werner.”.
The remaining three family members endured the rest of the journey, being separated so Mutti and Werner could get medical care, Irene could stay at Camp Jeanne d’Arc in Algeria, for displaced persons. She was able to contact her family via telegram, and got the relieving news that both Mutti and Werner were alive and in recovery.
A year and a half later, and sailing across the ocean on a cargo ship, Hasenberg was reunited with her family.
“I will never forget Werner’s hug,” she said.
Hasenberg attended high school and slowly learned English. She went the Queens College, then to Duke University for graduate school and became the only female in her class to earn a PhD in economics. In 1957, she married lively man, Charlie Butter who “Pappi would have loved.”
Today, Irene travels the country giving lectures and inspiring young people. A natural speaker, she tells her story and answers questions. Her advice to today’s youth is to stay aware of the their community.
“Be brave, be strong and don’t forget to think about other people as well as your own,” she said.
She also believes that America is supposed to be about equality, liberty and freedom, but today’s politics are “violating laws and values of the country.”
“We need to turn around” she said. “We need to realize that we are all the same.”.
Despite her age, she feels a responsibility to work towards creating a better world, and that’s why she shares her experiences. She wants people to join protests to “make our voices heard” and create a more equal America.
“Suffering makes you strong. Once you survive the Holocaust, you feel you can survive anything.”