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Jacqueline Mendels Birn papers

Document | Not Digitized | Accession Number: 2012.188.1

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    The collection consists of drawings and writings relating to the experiences of Jacqueline Mendels and her family while living in hiding in France during the Holocaust.
    inclusive:  1941-1943
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Jacqueline Mendels Birn
    Collection Creator
    Jacqueline Birn
    Jacqueline Mendels was born April 23, 1935 in Saint-Mande, a neighborhood in Paris, France. Her mother, Ellen (nee Hess), was born in 1906 in Hamburg, Germany. Her father, Frits, was born in 1905 in Almelo, Netherlands. He ran a specialty food import-export business. Jacqueline had one older sister, Manuela, born August 16, 1933.

    When Germany annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, some people in Paris evacuated the city, expecting the war to come there shortly. The Mendels evacuated to Fontainebleau, but returned to Paris after one week. When France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, the family evacuated Paris again, this time to a hotel in Seine-Port, just outside the city. They returned to Paris in October. In May 1940, during the early days of the invasion of France, the German bombardments often forced the family to don gas masks and seek shelter in the cellar of their apartment building. The family left Paris a third time in June, joining a massive evacuation from the city. The Mendels were taken in by a family in Deux-Sevres, but returned to Paris after the armistice was signed on June 22. Jacqueline and Manuela were able to attend the local public school that September. In July 1941, the government instituted a program of Aryanization. Her father was forced to sell his share of the business to his non-Jewish partner, but he continued to work and would hide in a back room if someone entered the store.

    In 1938, Frits had traveled to Hamburg to try to convince his wife’s widowed mother, Sophie Hess, to leave Germany, but she declined. In November, 1941, she was about to be deported from Hamburg, but committed suicide by poison. From then on, Jacqueline’s mother kept poison ready for her whole family. Jacqueline and her sister understood that if the Germans came to round up their family, their mother would give them pills that would make them “die immediately” and they would “never suffer.” In June 1942, French Jews were ordered to wear the yellow Star of David. The following month, 13,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to the Drancy transit camp, where most were deported to Auschwitz. Most of the roundups took place in areas of Paris with a high concentration of foreign Jews, but the Mendels lived in a primarily Catholic, French neighborhood. They were one of only a few Jewish families and the authorities did not come for them.

    On July 30, 1942, the family left Paris for the Vichy-controlled southern region of France, telling their daughters that they were going on a vacation, so as not to frighten them. They picked up their backpacks at the train station; they had been brought there by two young men in the French underground. The police did not search the Mendels’ train, as they did many others, but after arriving in Ribérac, her parents were arrested and interrogated by the French authorities. They were not imprisoned, but were ordered to remain within 100km of the regional capital of Périgueux. They settled in the two upstairs rooms of a house, with no electricity or water, in the tiny village of Le Got in Dordogne. They lived there for the next twenty-nine months. Frits exchanged everything they had of value for food, even Jacqueline’s doll clothes. They were the only Jewish refugees in the village.

    Circumstances were more dangerous for men, especially Jewish men, as they could be conscripted for forced labor. Consequently, Frits spent most of the time hiding in the dilapidated cellar of a friendly farmer, occasionally performing some work for him in exchange for food. Jacqueline and her sister attended a two-room school in the nearby village of Mazeyrolles. On August 7, 1943, Ellen gave birth to a son they named Franklin, after Franklin Roosevelt. Their situation became more precarious after the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944. But when Paris was liberated, Frits was able to return to check on his business. He was also able to reclaim the family’s apartment, which had been occupied by German soldiers in their absence. In November 1944, the family resumed their life in Paris. They later learned that around twenty close family members had been deported and killed in Sobibor and Auschwitz.

    Jacqueline met her American husband, Richard, while he was studying in Paris. They came to the U.S. in 1958, where they married. They have two children and one granddaughter. Jacqueline retired from the U.S. Foreign Service Institute in 2007 and began volunteering at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

    Physical Details

    French French

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    Conditions on Use
    Material(s) in this collection may be protected by copyright and/or related rights. You do not require further permission from the Museum to use this material. The user is solely responsible for making a determination as to if and how the material may be used.

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    Administrative Notes

    Gift of Jacqueline Mendels Birn, 2012.
    Record last modified:
    2022-07-28 17:43:49
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