For years, Henry Haas ’60 didn't know about the horrors his family escaped. Now, he's making sure the story doesn't get lost.
Henry Haas ’60 grew up in the 1940s in a refugee settlement in Shanghai, in a single 10-by-12-foot room he shared with his parents. There was no toilet, no running water. A simple sponge bath involved his parents going out among the crowds to buy hot water from street vendors. Haas walked to school, where he and other Jewish kids learned their lessons in German and English.
It was a hard childhood, to be sure. But Haas had no idea what his parents had gone through simply to get him to that point—to keep him alive during a horrific chapter of human history. He didn’t know that his parents had fled Berlin in 1938, when he was an infant, to escape the Nazis. He didn’t know about Adolph Hitler. He had no idea about the fate of his maternal grandparents, who stayed behind in Germany in the hope that things would get better—and who would end up perishing in a concentration camp. He didn’t know that 53 other members of his family would suffer the same fate.
“My parents wanted to give me the most normal life possible as a child,” he says now of the choice not to burden him with the reality of his family’s experience.
It wasn’t until Haas was a teenager living in Washington state that Gerda Haas began to tell her son, in bits and pieces, about the family’s dangerous and complicated journey to freedom. They had escaped death twice, it turns out—first in Germany, as the Nazis came to power, and then in Shanghai in 1943, when the Nazis ordered the Japanese to annihilate Jewish refugees living in that city. (For reasons not fully known, the Japanese never carried out the plan.) But in the mid-1990s, when Haas was a Tacoma lawyer and a married father of three, he finally learned the full story of his family’s escape from Nazi Germany. Around the dinner table, he and his wife, Kate, would listen intently to Gerda’s stories. One day, Kate said to her mother-in-law, “I really want to write your story.”
"Who would want to hear my story?”
“Your grandchildren,” Kate replied.
As it turns out, plenty of others, too. Kate first convinced Gerda to write an outline, then filled in the details based on many more in-depth conversations. Taking notes by hand on yellow legal pads, Kate began to weave the notes into a narrative. Eventually, she typed them into a document titled History of Gerda Buchheim Haas—Holocaust Survivor. The story opens with a message written by Gerda herself: “Our story is outlined in the ensuing pages,” she wrote, “and I hope it serves to provide a record of a point of time in history when prejudice and antisemitism, along with sheer madness, ruled this world.”
Henry and Gerda began to tell their story together, informally, and kept telling it until Gerda died in 2012. A few years ago, Henry signed up to be part of the speakers’ bureau of the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle. Haas, who at age 84 is still a practicing attorney, gives a PowerPoint presentation featuring a faded family photo that includes 11 family members who died in the Holocaust.
“I realized I had a story to tell, and I wanted to share it on a more regular basis,” he says. “I know there are kids out there who are in the same position I was, and I wanted them to hear my story."
The story begins before Henry Haas was born. His parents, Gerda and Hans, were teenagers in Berlin—not even a couple yet—when the ominous signs started.
Gerda worked in her father’s butcher shop and studied hard at school, hoping to get into university and become a teacher. But she was rejected, because she was Jewish. New laws were closing in on their middle-class world. The Nazis declared that Jews could only work for Jewish organizations, so Gerda worked in Jewish summer camps and day care—until Hitler closed Jewish businesses altogether.
In 1935, she married Hans, who had been her childhood friend and was now a salesman in the fur trade. Anticipating the trouble that was coming, Hans applied for and was granted Czechoslovakian citizenship, because his father, Samuel, had been born there. The citizenship certificate, good for 10 years, would later prove invaluable.
The next year, the newlyweds attended the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The international visitors who poured into the city didn’t see the “No Jews Here” signs that had been removed from the benches just before the Games, only to be restored afterward. Gerda and Hans watched Jesse Owens, the great Black sprinter from the United States, win the 100-meter dash—then watched Hitler refuse to shake his hand.
Street-smart and plugged into the precarious political situation, Hans told her, “We need to leave.” At first, Gerda didn’t see the need. She had no interest in politics as a young woman, and believed her father, Max, who told her, “This garbage will go away.” But as the threat of violence continued to escalate, Hans pleaded with his now-pregnant wife. She agreed, but wanted to wait long enough for her child to be born in Germany. Henry was born in April 1938, and the family left the country three months later.