Students gathered around 86-year-old Dina Angress last week at Minarets High School as she gave them a first-hand account of surviving the Holocaust as a young Jewish girl in Holland.
Angress, who was born in Amsterdam, was the oldest of three girls.
"I had a wonderful childhood," she said.
She learned to read Hebrew before Dutch and attended a Jewish parochial school -- the same school Anne Frank, a widely-known victim of the holocaust, attended. Angress said the two even had some exchanges during their physical education class. Unlike many children, Angress loved going to school. When she was sick and her mother would tell her to stay home from school, she would fight with her mother because she wanted to go so badly.
However when Angress was just 10-years-old, things began to change. Her father, a doctor and a reservist in the Dutch army, was called up to serve. In May, 1940, when Angress was in sixth grade, Hitler invaded Holland.
Soon her life was full of blaring sirens, blacked out windows and bombings. Angress' father was on the front lines, trying to save lives as a medic. At that time there were ships chartered to take Jewish children and their mothers to America, but Angress' mother would not leave her husband behind. She gave two of her daughters -- the third was in Switzerland for medical reasons -- the opportunity to leave on one of the ships but Angress didn't want to leave her mother behind.
It took only five days of heavy bombing from the Germans for Holland to surrender. Soon Angress' father returned home, Angress went back to school and life seemed to return to normal. However, restrictions on Jews soon began to happen. Before they knew it, the Jews were ordered to turn over everything to the authorities -- from their bicycles and cars to their jewelry. They were also told to wear a yellow star on their clothing.
"Holland is a very law-abiding country so when the Germans took over, nobody realized what a bunch of schmucks they (Germans) were so did they (Jews) did what they were told," Angress said. "When they realized the truth, they formed the underground."
Some neighbors hid Jews from the Germans while others collaborated with the Germans and turned their Jewish neighbors over to the Germans.
At first, no one knew about extermination camps, Angress said. The Germans sent letters out to the young Jewish people and the letters said to come and work in some of their camps and earn money. At that time, the Jews didn't realize what the camps really were. Angress' neighbor's son was soon drafted and not long after his parents received a message that he'd died of "natural causes."
"We didn't know about the gas chambers until after the war," Angress said.
More and more Jews were taken but Angress' family was still free because her father was a doctor. Then one day 12 German soldiers came for Angress, her sister and her mother. Angress and her younger sister, Lea, were recovering from chicken pox. In a desperate attempt to save her children, Angress' mother told the police that her daughters had smallpox. She said if the Germans took her children they would be in danger of catching the disease themselves. The captain finally told his men to get out of the house and they left.
Finally, the day came when Angress' family's luck began to run out and they were informed that their name had come up to be taken to the camps. Fortunately, through contacts made through the war, Angress' family was able to obtain falsified identification papers. Not everyone could do so because if you asked the wrong person for help, Angress said you might end up shot.
The day after her 15th birthday, Angress and her family went into hiding. They did so separately -- Angress with one family, her sister with another, her parents with yet another family.
Angress stayed with a young couple who had a seven-month-old baby and she acted as a their maid. Angress hid in plain sight, taking the baby for walks in its stroller, along with the family's big dog, to a park frequented by German soldiers.
"I was very safe there because no one suspected me of being Jewish," Angress said. "I would walk and I would laugh to myself, 'If you knew who I am .'"
Angress lived with the family for a year and-a-half until the war ended and she was free again at age 16.
"When I was hiding I learned there are some nasty people in the world but the majority, in my experience, are good people," Angress said.
Even with the war over, things would never be the same and Angress' family had refugees coming through their home for months after the war.
"It (life) could never be completely normal because we had lost so many family and friends," Angress said.
Although Angress' immediate family made it through the war alive, she lost a grandmother, an aunt, two uncles, and some cousins.
Instead of holding onto anger, Angress made her experiences into a learning tool and had some advice for the students at Minarets who attentively listened to her speak.
"When you see something you don't think is right, do something," she said. "It's very important to look out for things that are morally wrong. Try and treat people the way you like to be treated because if you treat people right, most of the time they'll respond that way. You don't have to shoot to solve a problem. When you shoot, you've already lost."
Three years after the war ended, Angress married her high school sweetheart who had come looking for her the minute the war was over. He wanted to be a farmer and, because there was no land to farm in Holland, they decided to immigrate to the United States and found themselves on a farm in Northern California.