In the famous epilogue of the Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List,” descendants of the Jews rescued by German industrialist Oskar Schindler line up to place stones on his Jerusalem grave. There are so many of them, is the point: an infinite flowering of the family trees from the few who were saved.
Petaluma resident Dina Angress was also rescued from the Holocaust — not by Schindler, but by Dutch Christians who refused to surrender their defining human values to the Nazi occupiers. Her parents and two sisters also survived because of Dutch families who protected them.
Angress spent the rest of her life paying it forward.
Now 91, the longtime North Bay resident is the matriarch of an enormous multigenerational family and has also fostered or mentored many children outside of it. The walls of every room in her home are papered with photographs of her six grown children, 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. There are hand-drawn charts to keep track of them all, and a calendar just for birthdays. And a poster of President Obama.
“I wanted to have a big, big family. And I did,” Angress told J. during a visit to her apartment, where she’s lived independently since 1990.
In 1998, one of her grandchildren, Rebecca Hodges, then an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, interviewed Angress for a class with a renowned oral historian, Judy Yung. Now holding a doctorate in American history from UC Berkeley, Hodges has expanded that interview into a detailed written account of her beloved grandmother’s life from her birth until the time she came to the U.S.
Two members of Angress’ extended family have published autobiographies, but Dina Angress has not. Hodges said her grandmother was never inclined to write it all down, “but, she is, in her own way, just as self-aware, and I think her story is just as important.”
Angress, neé Dasberg, was born to Dutch Jewish parents in 1928. She gave her granddaughter an oral account of her childhood full of lively details about growing up above an Amsterdam canal, the family’s prosperous life, their Shabbat observance, interactions with extended family and neighbors, and being a Jewish minority in Holland — neither persecuted, nor completely integrated.
Until she was 13, Angress aspired to be a family doctor like her father — a pursuit her mother encouraged. Then she came to the realization that “I wanted kids more than anything else,” she told Hodges, and she feared that a medical career would interfere with that goal. She attended a Jewish school, Joods Lyceum, where one of her classmates was Anne Frank. She described Frank, who was about two years younger, as “fun-loving” and “not particularly quiet.”
“She was a 13-year-old who said whatever she wanted to say,” Angress recalled.
In the subjective timeline of Angress’ youth, the war came on slowly. She was 10 in September 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. The Dutch government mobilized the army reserves, but Holland’s war with Germany lasted for all of five days in May 1940. The city of Rotterdam was bombed and the Dutch government accepted German occupation rather than see the whole nation destroyed.
What Angress remembers from that period mirrors the descriptions in Anne Frank’s diary: how the Germans canceled the rights and freedoms Jews had once taken for granted — and how annoying this was to both vivacious teenagers. And yet, there was time for young love. During the few years she attended the Jewish school, she met Hans Angress, a young German Jewish man who would also survive the war, go to the U.S. and then come back to marry her. But before that, Angress remembers the futility of trying to stand up to the Germans. “The Dutch couldn’t do anything, they would be shot,” she told Hodges. And so, “the Resistance was born.”
Angress gives a harrowing account of how her family used their wits to avoid being rounded up by the Germans as they began to deport Dutch Jews. In one such event, Dina and her sister were home with the chicken pox when the Gestapo came to their door. Their mother was able to frighten the soldiers away by telling them that the children had smallpox. In 1943, when the family went into hiding, the good reputation of Dr. Dasberg was helpful in finding Dutch people who would take them into their homes. The parents stayed together, but the two girls went to separate homes.
Both were “well taken care of during the war,” Angress said. But they would not see one another, nor their parents, for over two years.
Angress was 16 when the war ended, 19 when she married Hans. They sailed to the U.S. in January 1948, making their way to California, where Hans had prospects. After so much danger and privation, Dina Angress’ postwar married life was pretty much bliss. Hans teamed up with Bill Straus and his wife, Ellen, who had a small dairy farm near Marshall, on Tomales Bay. For some 20 years, the two young couples built up the farm into what would become the Straus Family Creamery while raising their respective children. Dina had her first child at 20, her fifth at 40, and then adopted a baby boy. Hans and Dina were also foster parents to several children.
“They were wonderful years on the farm,” Angress said. “I loved every minute of it. I never thought of it as hard work.”
In 1969 the two families parted ways. Hans and Dina divorced several years later, though they would regroup for family occasions. In 1978 Dina moved to Occidental in Sonoma County, where she was known as a community-minded person who would take in almost anyone who needed a bed. She went to work in an adoption agency and was active in the local Democratic Party, as she is to this day in Petaluma. The entire family remains close — and it’s nearly a full-time job keeping track of one another.
Hodges has no doubts about the memoir’s value for all the generations of her family. Maybe, she reflects, it will encourage other people to take the time to conduct an oral history of their elder relatives, to find the threads of memory and continuity that weave a family together.
Said Hodges, “There were so many in her extended family who did not survive.”