One more step toward 'never again'
Couple's legacy project focuses on Haiti's role in saving Jewish refugees during World War II
This is a story with two beginnings. The first has shadings of a dark fairy tale, or a bad dream.
Once upon a time, a small boy fled Germany with his family, leaving behind most of their possessions.
The boy was far too young to know the reason for that quickly arranged journey across an ocean to a strange new land, or understand that the passage would mean that he, his parents, and his sister would escape extermination in camps crowded with fellow Jews.
And young Bill was also too young to retain much in his memory of the 10 months he subsequently lived in Haiti, a country that opened its proverbial arms to Europe's refugees fleeing Hitler's Nazi forces.
Details of that welcoming land are hazy at best for Bill Mohr some 72 years later. But the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti created fresh, vivid, and painful new images of the tiny nation he called home as a child of 4.
Sitting in their home in the Allied Arts neighborhood of Menlo Park, Bill and his wife, Harriet Mohr, watched the TV news detailing massive efforts launched by domestic and international rescue teams to find and aid earthquake victims. Among the scenes unfolding on the screen, one image provided some relief to the couple's distress: a medical team from Israel rescuing and treating injured Haitians.
That powerful image — of Jews from a faraway country coming to the aid of the Haitian people seven decades after Haiti helped to save desperate Jewish refugees — represented the completion of a circle, and was the spark for a new pursuit for the Mohrs. And so begins the story anew.
A new life project
"Haiti was not on our minds — ever — until the earthquake," Ms. Mohr said during a recent interview. In the quake's aftermath, however, they couldn't get it out of their minds.
So, determined to collect information about the period when Jewish refugees were welcomed there, and to increase public awareness of that time, they created the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project. It was launched two years ago this month — and 70 years, to the month, after Bill Mohr arrived with his family in New York after leaving Haiti.
Beginning with a blog, haitiholocaustsurvivors.wordpress.com, with personal messages from the Mohrs, the website soon expanded to include current news of Haiti and Israel, anti-Semitism, and other information.
Mr. Mohr says his prime motivation for creating the legacy project is to "shine a positive light on Haiti" — a country known by much of the world for its extreme poverty and political corruption.
In October 2010, the Mohrs began choosing and honoring individuals and organizations "who are working in the areas of remembrance of World War II, revealing Haiti's role in saving Jewish refugees' lives during the Shoah and building bridges to new understanding of the current connection between the Jewish and Haitian people," according to a statement on their website. The recognition is called the Tikkun Olam Award, and the couple has sent out 25 award certificates to honorees so far.
Tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase meaning "repairing the world," and on the website the Mohrs describe it as a fundamental Jewish principle and lived value. Recognizing people whose work has had a positive impact on the world has been a meaningful and gratifying aspect of the Mohrs' work, they say.
"At this time in our culture, we need a lot of 'tikkun olam' people," Ms. Mohr says. "We feel so good to be able to honor both the ones who have passed and the ones still with us."
The fact that Haiti accepted Jewish refugees during World War II is not well known. When the Mohrs began their research on the topic, some people, including at least one Jewish history archivist, either knew nothing about it, "or they knew but thought it was ... only a few families," Ms. Mohr says.
Their own research "was almost like an archaeological dig. ... (There was) a lot of connecting the dots," Ms. Mohr says.
It's unknown how many Jewish refugees ultimately made it to Haiti — the figure may be as low as 150, and as high as about 300. But the number of European Jews who obtained Haitian passports is certainly higher. "Some people used their Haiti passports to flee, even though they (ended up) in another country," Ms. Mohr says. "People had to move very quickly," she says, and they used any means available to get on a ship and out of danger.
Their research included a closer look into the Mohr family's escape from Germany and life in Haiti, which was made easier by an oral history in the words of Bill's mother, Auguste Mohr, transcribed by his older sister, Ruth.
Auguste Mohr was in her late 80s when she recalled the events that turned her life upside down — a history she begins with the aftermath of the Kristallnacht attacks on German and Austrian Jews in November 1938. Bill's father, Ernest, was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, where he remained for six weeks while Auguste "worked feverishly on our immigration to Haiti, which for us was the only way out," she said in her oral history.
The process was arduous, and when the passports were secured, packing up the family's belongings was done under the supervision of Nazi guards, who greatly restricted what could be taken away.
The family had the affidavit necessary to eventually immigrate to the United States, but the U.S. restricted the number of refugees to the degree that many had to find temporary places to live.
After 32 days at sea, the family arrived in Haiti, where they survived with little money and few possessions for the next 10 months.
Bill and Harriet Mohr say that one of the most exciting discoveries they've made since exploring the family story is that Ernest Mohr, Bill's father, volunteered with the local group of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to assess the needs of the refugees in terms of food, shelter and funds. No one starved because the JDC provided needed help, Ms. Mohr says.
It was in Haiti, decades before the devastating earthquake of 2010, that Auguste Mohr experienced her first earthquake, Harriet Mohr says. "She was terrified," she says, but a Haitian woman who was nearby held the German woman's hand and stayed with her to provide comfort. The Haitian people "were so helpful. ... It was a nice, healing place to be."
The Mohrs plan to write a book about the Mohr family's escape from Germany, life in Haiti, and immigration to the United States, they say. Meanwhile, they say they usually spend a few hours each day on legacy project work, "which we find very meaningful and engaging," they said in an email.
Although Ms. Mohr's Jewish grandparents had to flee Tsarist Russia to escape persecution in the early 20th century, she was fortunate not to have had "any experience of being chased away" from home, she says. But a "deep sense of moral outrage" has remained with her since her childhood experience of seeing pictures of World War II concentration camp victims, she says.
Her hope and vision for the legacy project, she says, "is that it makes one small contribution to the goal of 'never again.'"
The Mohrs came to California in the 1960s, and have lived in San Francisco and on the Peninsula ever since, except for one year of living in Israel. That year was "an incredible experience we're still growing from," Ms. Mohr says.
Bill Mohr worked from 1971 until his 1999 retirement at Hewlett-Packard.
Harriet Mohr was a stay-at-home mother, raising the couple's daughter, Tara, but managed to write a trilogy of spiritual books during that time, and has lectured on the books' subjects.