Shoah refugee sparks local drive to aid D.C. museum

Mathilde Albers escaped Nazi Germany just days before the borders closed and Hitler's troops invaded Eastern Europe in the first military offensive of World War II.

The Oakland retiree said she knows too well what it is to live a blessed life.

In fact, she's devoted most of her postwar career to sharing her blessings with the Jewish community through philanthropy and activism, especially in the field of Shoah education.

But Albers believes that many Jews on the West Coast don't feel the same sense of duty in supporting Jewish institutions such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Part of the problem, she says, is that the local community is far removed from the Washington, D.C., landmark. Many have never even been there.

The other half of the problem is that there's no group here with formal ties to the institution. That, however, could soon change.

Albers is planning to start a Friends of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum chapter in the Bay Area. She plans to kick off her campaign with a San Francisco fund-raiser for the museum's Education and Remembrance Fund.

"I see it mainly to educate people that the museum exists," she said.

The event, a book talk with Israeli survivor Ruth Elias, will take place Tuesday evening at the Clift Hotel. Sara Bloomfield, the new director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, will introduce the speaker.

Elias authored the recently published "Triumph Of Hope: From Theresienstadt and Auschwitz to Israel," about her experience of having a hidden pregnancy discovered in the camps and then falling prey to medical experiments by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

"It's a very touching story," Albers said of Elias' novel, which was translated into English from German. The book will be available for purchase at the event.

The fund-raiser is the last project on Albers' to-do list before preparing a memoir of her own for publication. While the manuscript has been written for a while, Albers says she's been simply too busy to do anything with it.

When she isn't organizing events, she advises sundry Jewish agencies as a local board member of American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Anti-Defamation League, American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and Israel Bonds. She also is active with American Society for Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and advises Israel's premier as part of UJA/Federations of North America Prime Minister's Council, an elite group of American philanthropists who have donated $100,000 or more to the Jewish state.

Albers' war tale begins when she was a medical school student in Cologne, Germany. The 19-year-old married her med-student boyfriend, Henry Albers, in a hurried and quiet affair following Kristallnacht. With the help of Mathilde Albers' two brothers in Holland, the couple acquired the necessary work permits to gain entry to England. They left Cologne in August 1939, only days before Hitler invaded Poland, the official beginning of World War II. In Britain, the newlyweds awaited visas for the United States.

They set sail a year later in the middle of the blitz. Their transport was a captured German ship called the Dusseldorf. The boat had its problems and seemed to break down every five minutes, Albers recalled.

"The crew wouldn't know what to do because all the [operating] instructions were in German," she said.

"They wouldn't let us translate it because we were considered enemy aliens."

The little ship docked for repairs at every opportunity — Iceland, Greenland and finally through the Panama Canal on the way to San Francisco. The journey took 16 weeks. With a little English already in command, the couple quickly secured jobs, she as a seamstress for a Mission Street shirt manufacturer, her husband as a maker of American flags. They eventually moved on to start their own business in Oakland, the Pacific Hospital Equipment and Supply Company on Telegraph Avenue. The company no longer exists.

Albers waited anxiously when the war ended for news of her brothers and her Germany-based parents, all of whom had been waiting for visas when the war began. No news ever came. Years later, she learned that her parents were deported to a camp, Teriga in Lithuania.

Albers taped some of her story in a group session with survivors William Lowenberg of San Francisco and the late Alfred Fromm, who also lived in the city. But as far as she knows the videotape, a project of the Judah L. Magnes Museum of Berkeley, was never publicly aired.

The Albers' business prospered. Albers sold the company in 1976 a couple of years after her husband died. She has one son, Dennis Albers of Piedmont, and two grandchildren.

Discussing her work on behalf of the museum, Albers said, "Everything I do Jewishly in my life, I feel obligated to do."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.