Jacqueline Mendels Birn is the daughter of Frits Mendels and Ellen (nee Hess) Mendels. Jacqueline was born on April 23, 1935 in Paris where her father ran a food import-export business. Her older sister Manuela was born on August 16, 1933. Her father was born in the Netherlands, and her mother was born in Germany. Frits immigrated to France in 1926. He corresponded with Ellen for four years and then proposed to her. Ellen joined him in France, and they married in 1930. On May 10, 1940 Germany invaded France. The family had to make repeated trips to the cellar of their apartment house and don gas masks during the early days of the invasion and bombardments. The family fled Paris along with millions of French people, but after the armistice was signed, they returned to Paris. Manuela and Jacqueline began attending the local public school that September. In 1941 Jacqueline's father was forced to sell his business to a non-Jewish business associate, but he continued to work in the background. Jacqueline and her sister were told to never answer the doorbell when their mother was not home, as German soldiers lived upstairs from their apartment, and one never knew if the Gestapo or the French police was looking for Jews. In June 1942, French Jews were ordered to wear the yellow star and the following month, the French police conducted massive round-ups of Parisian Jews. They brought them to the Velodrome d'Hiver and then deported them to Auschwitz. The Mendels family luckily was spared arrest. However realizing the imminent danger, Frits and Ellen made plans to flee.
On July 30 they left Paris, telling their daughters only that they were going on a vacation, so as not to scare them. At the Paris train station they picked up their backpacks, which had been delivered to the baggage check previously by teenage members of the French underground. The train, which was to take them to the border of the Vichy-controlled southern zone, was delayed in departing because the Gestapo or French police were searching trains for Jews but fortunately never searched the train carrying the Mendels. A few nights later, the Mendels family met with two "passeurs," who for a large fee guided them across the border. Not far from the border, in Riberac, French authorities interrogated Frits and Ellen for crossing without a permit. Rather than sending them to an internment camp, the prefet allowed them to stay in the area in "residence surveillée" but required that they live in a small village not more than 100 km from Perigueux. With the approval of local authorities, they found housing in the tiny village of Le Got in Dordogne. There they lived in the upper two rooms of a house without running water, toilets or electricity. They could bathe only once a week, one after the other in the same tub of water. They were the only Jews in the village, and the local people knew that they were refugees. Because the situation was more dangerous for men and even more so for Jewish men, who could be 'drafted' into the STO (Service de Travail Obligatoire) or forced labor, Frits spent much of the next two years in hiding in a dilapidated cellar on the property of a friendly farmer, Marcel Vigie. Frits also performed some work for him and was paid with food rather than money. He supplemented their food supply by exchanging some of the family's possessions, such as their radio and Jacqueline's doll's clothes for food as well, and as a result of his efforts Manuela and Jacqueline remember always having enough to eat. They were even able to attend school in the next village until it closed. In August 1943, Ellen gave birth to a son under difficult circumstances. They decided to name him Franklin, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as they felt that the American president was their only hope for survival.
In late August 1944, Paris was liberated. Although the war was not yet over, Frits returned to Paris that autumn to check on the family's apartment house and business. After reclaiming their apartment, which had been occupied by German soldiers until the liberation of Paris, Frits returned to Le Got, and at the end of November he, Ellen and the three children returned to Paris to try to start leading a normal life again. They later learned that nineeen close Dutch family members had died in the Holocaust, including both of Jacqueline's grandmothers. Her paternal grandmother, Thekla Marx Mendels, was murdered in Sobibor at the age of 70. Her maternal grandmother, Sophie Hess, had committed suicide in November 1941 at the age of 64, after receiving a deportation order. Also over 190 members of her extended family were murdered.
Through a Dutch cousin, Jacqueline met Richard Birn, an American studying at L'Institut de Sciences Politique as a French Government Fellow and Fulbright scholar. They came to the U.S. in 1958, where they married and later had two children. Richard joined the U.S. Foreign Service, and Jacqueline worked for the U.S. government's Foreign Service Institute. In 2007, Jacqueline began volunteering at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.