Bettina Mayer was born on May 14, 1927, in Bausendorf, Germany, to Siegmund and Johannette Wolff Mayer. Johannette was born in Binningen, Germany, in 1896 to Elias and Johanna Mayer Wolff. Siegmund was born in 1895 in Bausendorf to Albert and Klara Kaufmann Mayer. Siegmund and Johannette were married in 1926. Albert passed away from natural causes in 1926 and Klara moved in with Siegmund and Johannette. Klara’s sister, Sarah, also lived with the family. Bettina had one brother, Albert, born in 1930. They were a traditionally orthodox Jewish family of considerable wealth. Siegmund ran a successful butcher shop and owned multiple properties.
Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, which led to anti-Jewish legislation and targeted persecution of Jews. There were few Jewish families in town and the family felt the changes brought by the Nazi dictatorship gradually. Bettina and Albert attended a Catholic school where they were increasingly discriminated against and in 1936 they transferred to a Jewish school. During the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 10, 1938, the family was arrested and locked in a school building. When they returned to their home, the windows were broken and the butcher shop was demolished. The only thing left from the shop was money that Siegmund had hidden in a pile of wood. Not long after Kristallnacht, Siegmund was forced to sell his properties at a decreased price. The family moved to Cologne, Germany, in December. Bettina had to attend a private dress making school in 1940 because Jews were no longer allowed to attend public schools.
The family was notified in early 1941 that they were to be deported. Bettina and Albert were hospitalized at the time and Siegmund was able to postpone the deportation until the second transport on December 1941 to the Riga ghetto in German occupied Latvia. The family had to leave Klara and Sarah in a nursing home in Cologne. The four day train ride to Riga was very crowded and there was little food and water. Siegmund melted snow for the family to drink. Once they arrived in the ghetto, they saw blood everywhere. The family was told later that Latvian Jews were killed shortly before their arrival to make room for German Jews. They shared a small, single room with another family. Bettina worked several jobs in the ghetto, including cleaning apartments and sorting the clothes of Jews that were killed. Food was scarce and she stole clothing for Siegmund to exchange for food outside the ghetto.
In September 1943, the family was deported to Kaiserwald concentration camp. Men and women were housed in different barracks and the family was separated. Bettina worked shoveling snow and her mother straightened nails. Bettina was infected with typhus and, while she was recovering, Johannette gave Bettina her ration of bread. In May 1944, Johannette died of starvation. Bettina took over her mother’s work, as it was less physically exhausting. Albert was selected to be killed and Siegmund hid him in the barracks. Albert was eventually discovered, and Siegmund chose to go to the gas chambers with him; they were killed in July 1944. Bettina was deported to Stutthof concentration camp in Poland in September 1944, and shortly after was deported to a subcamp, Sophienwald labor camp. She shoveled snow and built streets and houses. In early March 1945, the Soviet Army advanced towards the camp and the prisoners were forced on a death march to Gothendorf, Germany. The march lasted several days and Bettina slept in barns, under animals, to stay warm. The prisoners stayed in Gothendorf for several days and Bettina was forced to bath in nearly frozen water. The death march continued to Chinow which was libersted by the Soviet Army March 10, 1945.
Bettina stayed in an abandoned house with friends from Cologne who also had been on the death march. A Jewish officer in the Soviet Army stayed with them and protected them. She again became ill with typhus and was put in a Soviet hospital. After recovering, she traveled to Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Austria where she stayed in Vienna. Bettina and her friends lived in a Jewish children’s home that provided food and clothing. In May, she moved with her friend to a small town near Bielefeld, Germany. Another friend from Cologne, Manfred Gruenbaum, persuaded her to move to the displaced persons camp Deggendorf, and she lived there for a year and a half. Manfred was born in Herbede, Germany, and raised in Cologne. He was deported to the Riga ghetto in 1941, then to Kaiserwald and to Heeres-Kraftfahr-Park 562, a Wehrmacht military vehicle repair depot. He was transported to Stutthof, where he was forced on a death march. He was liberated in Rieben, Germany, and moved to Deggendorf. After the war, Bettina learned that her maternal grandmother and aunt, Klara and Sarah, were killed at Auschwitz. Her uncle in New York provided her with an affidavit of support and she was issued a visa and moved to Washington, DC in April 1947. Bettina married Manfred in August 1947, and they had two daughters.