a mother’s resolve to survive
Berta Hellmann, Helen Bix’s mother, was a remarkable, resourceful woman. Not only was she a college-educated woman who spoke five languages, but she was a businesswoman with the grit and perseverance to see that her family survived the most catastrophic event of the twentieth century.
“She did whatever she had to… I don’t know how she did it,” says Helen as she recounts the tale of her journey across three continents. In November 1938 immediately following Kristallnacht, Berta somehow arranged for the release of her husband from a Nazi concentration camp. As he left for Shanghai, she prepared to leave separately with her two children, selling whatever she could and planning the perilous journey across Europe to Genoa, Italy and securing passage for the open port of Shanghai.
In Shanghai Helen and her brother Emil attended the Shanghai Jewish School while Berta worked long hours at the retail store she opened in the International Settlement at 757 Bubbling Well Road. Everything suddenly changed in 1941 when her husband died from tuberculosis. Now money was even scarcer and Berta had to work even harder to feed her children. In 1943 the Japanese forced the family to move to the devastated Hongkou ghetto. “There was no place to hide.” But the most horrific experience that Helen had to endure was her daily walk over the Garden Bridge to school. There she witnessed an execution by Japanese guards. “It is a memory that I just can’t get out of my mind.”
In Hongkou Berta began a business. “Whatever she could sell she would find someone to sew and she would make a profit.” This is how the family survived. “With everything going on it is amazing we actually survived. Not just the war years but also the Chinese mafia, the communists, the nationalists.”
In 1948 with the aid of HIAS Berta and her children were finally able to immigrate to the United States. After settling in Minneapolis, Berta again began her own sewing company that Helen helped grow into a thriving business. Helen Bix is forever thankful to the Jewish community for giving her a home. She continues to work for the Jewish Federation and HIAS, organizations who make it possible for the Jewish people to live in freedom today.