Mine Grassetti: Escaping the Holocaust

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2015 21:53
Mine-with-Rose-The-Hague-Rose-and-family-perished-in-war-edited

Mine (left) with best friend Rose in The Hague

“Hitler’s voice would scare me,” recalls Mine Grassetti. “When I was a little girl, I heard him on the radio. His voice and the way people reacted to it was so scary, just madness. Still to this day I do not like crowds.”

Grassetti had reason to be fearful. Born Mine Simons to Jewish parents living in The Hague, she was 12 when Nazi Germany invaded Holland in May of 1940.

“The war only lasted five days,” says Mine (pronounced Meena), now 87. “Germany bombed Rotterdam to pieces. We could hear it 12 miles away in The Hague. Rotterdam got bombed to bits and Holland gave up.

“In 1940 we knew what was coming for the Jews,” the longtime Jamestown resident says.

“My parents had sent me to camp in Switzerland, and there were Jewish children from Germany there. In the late ’30s their families would write and ask if they could send their children to us because it was so bad for Jews in Germany.

“My story could have been just like Anne Frank’s except for one difference – my family had money,” Grassetti says. “We survived because we were able to get out.

“My grandfather was religious, and even when the Nazis came, he would always say, ‘God will take care of us.’ My grandfather did not try to get out. He died at Dachau.

“My best friend, Rose Jacobs … her whole family … killed. Two children, parents … After the war when I went back and tried to find them, people just said ‘They disappeared.’ Disappeared meant they went to the camps.”

How did Mine’s family get out?

“My father, my grandfather, and my uncles were in the steel business in Holland. That is an important point. And money talks, bullshit walks.

“My parents knew they wanted to go to America, but there were quotas, and the American ambassador to Holland was a stinker. He said there were enough Jews in the U.S. already.”

In September 1940, Grassetti’s father and another businessman named Felix Pais bribed Dutch Nazis into getting them border passes to Belgium. She assumes the Nazis didn’t think the men could secure an exit visa from any country willing to take the group, which included two doctors and a number of friends in addition to Mine, her older brother Erik and her parents.

Another bribe and a bogus exit visa for a South American country was arranged. In mid-September, taking what she could put into a suitcase, Mine joined the others and boarded a train for Belgium.

That train broke down, and by the time it was repaired and arrived in Brussels, the only connecting passenger train to Paris had already left.

“Felix Pais saved our lives,” Grassetti says. “We were stuck in the station and only had three or four days left on our papers.

Family-circa-1940-editedt

Simons family photo, circa 1942

“Pretty soon a German troop train arrived. I had seen Nazi soldiers back in The Hague, but never that many together. I’m only a young girl and I’m Jewish and I’m really nervous. They could have sent us back to The Hague. Not bloody likely we would have survived back in Holland.

“Felix Pais had guts and brains enough to demand to speak to the German commander. On the platform there he told the commander we were going to Spain to buy steel for the German war effort. Why the man believed him I don’t know to this day. Now that I’m old, I wonder if he suspected we were Jewish and just didn’t care.”

German soldiers loaded their luggage, placed them in a compartment and then stood in the hallway. Inside was a terrified family of Jews in Europe in 1940, surrounded by Nazi soldiers.

“My eyes were popping out. It was unbelievable,” Grassetti recalls. “I didn’t eat, and I didn’t drink anything the whole trip. I didn’t speak, I didn’t move. I didn’t even go to the bathroom for 24 hours.”

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Mine with her brother, Erik

The train headed for Dunkirk on the coast of France and dropped most of the soldiers at the port where 330,000 Allied troops had been evacuated from the continent three months earlier. It then took Grassetti and the others to Paris.

“Paris was occupied,” she says, “but we didn’t see many soldiers on the street. We didn’t really see anyone on the street.”

The travelers stayed one night in a hotel and then boarded a train for Spain.

“On that train we finally felt safe,” Grassetti says. “Spanish soldiers rode across the border with us and had to check our luggage. When they went through my mother’s things, one soldier found her tampons and didn’t know what they were. He held up this cardboard tube. A Jewish doctor in our group then explained to him in Spanish what it was.

“That poor soldier. He apologized so profusely to my mother, and then we all burst out laughing. I think that was the moment when we all breathed, when we all felt relief. How could you not feel relief laughing about a tampon?”

“When we got to Bilbao, the American ambassador gave us permanent American visas, and in October we sailed for New York.”

Grassetti quickly learned English and graduated in 1945 from Julia Richman High School in New York City. After completing a degree in art and architecture from Bennington College in Vermont, she began a graduate program at MIT, where she met Davide Grassetti.

Like her, he was Jewish and like her, he and his family had survived the Holocaust by escaping their homeland, in his case Italy. He had a PhD in organic chemistry and was teaching at MIT on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Mine Grassetti today

Mine Grassetti today

After marrying Grassetti in 1952, Mine raised four children, completed law school and sold real estate. She and Davide moved to Jamestown in the late ’80s, and he passed away in 2005.

Mine’s children live in the Bay Area and have encouraged her to move closer to them. In June, she bought a small house in Walnut Creek and moved there.

She thinks of the Holocaust today and says, “Surely, it was the biggest madness ever.

“I survived because my family had money. I survived because my mother was nervous about what was happening to Jewish people in Europe. I survived because my father was stubborn and would not let his family stay in Holland.

“I survive everything.”


This story appeared as part of our cover story, Survivors: Lessons in Resilience,” in our Winter 2014-’15 issue. Click on these links to read the other survivors’ stories:

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2015 21:53
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