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    Laguna Woods resident hid in plain sight to survive Holocaust
    • October 23, 2023

    For many children, the game of hide-and-seek is played for fun, but for Betty Nasiell, hiding during part of her childhood was the key to her survival.

    When she was 6 years old and living in her native Netherlands, Nasiell saw German soldiers marching past her house singing a song about continuing on to England.

    Betty Nasiell, age 9, sits on the porch of a house where a family hid her during World War 11. Nasiell, 89, is now a Laguna Woods resident.
    (Courtesy of Betty Nasiell)

    Betty Nasiell at age 11, after World War II, when she was re-united with her mother and sister. Nasiell is now 89 and living in Laguna Woods.
    (Courtesy of Betty Nasiell)

    Canadian soldiers who liberated Betty Nasiell pose with (second row, from left) Pieter Bakker, Betty and sister Kathy and (front row, from left) Betty’s mother, Sascha, and Klasien Bakker.
    (Courtesy of Betty Nasiell)

    Laguna Woods resident Betty Nasiell, 89, works on a jigsaw puzzle at her home.
    (Photo by Penny E. Schwartz)

    Laguna Woods resident Betty Nasiell, 89, was a young girl living in the Netherlands during World War II.
    (Photo by Penny E. Schwartz)



    It was May 1940, and the Germans had overrun her country in their bid to dominate Europe and the world during World War II.

    “My father told me not to worry, and I was too young to realize the consequences,” Nasiell, 89, said in a recent interview at her home in Laguna Woods, where she has lived for 35 years,

    When her mother asked if the family could go to America, her father said it was too late to escape, she recalled.

    Soon Nasiell was unable to attend school or play with neighborhood children due to German decrees regarding the treatment of members of the Jewish faith.

    “We had to wear a yellow star on our coats, which was sewn on to designate we were Jews,” she said in an account of her life written up by friend and neighbor AJ Lane.

    “I had no idea what it was for,” Nasiell said. “I was mad about not playing with my other girlfriends.”

    Although they had enough food on the table, her parents, Leo and Sascha van der Horst, had to close the department store they owned in the town of Steenwijk and relinquish their car. Leo was taken away briefly by the Germans but fortunately returned to his family in time for his wife’s birthday.

    By 1942, Nasiell’s parents knew it was time to disappear with help from the local underground movement.

    “My sister and I were deposited with some former store employees nearby for one night,” Nasiell said in Lane’s account. Strangers from the underground picked her up and took her by herself to the home of a couple named Liefland in Utrecht to go into hiding.

    “I wasn’t thinking anything at the time but knew I couldn’t go outside except at night so I wouldn’t be seen,” Nasiell said.

    During a necessary visit to a doctor, she was briefly reunited with her sister, Kathy, who was three years older, in the waiting room. She discovered that her sister had been sent to several homes in hiding but was so homesick and depressed, she was reunited with their parents.

    When neighbors collaborating with the Germans entered the house where Nasiell was staying and asked her point-blank if she was Jewish, she answered that she was.

    “No one had told me to say that I wasn’t,” she said.

    Taken in for interrogation, she told the authorities honestly that she didn’t know where her parents were despite threats of having her ears cut off.

    She was taken away to Amsterdam and held with other Jews in a theater before they were to be shipped off to Poland. Members of the underground managed to find out that she had relatives in the city who owned a kosher restaurant.

    Her aunt and uncle, named Hiechentlich, paid a ransom to have Nasiell freed, and she stayed with them for several months.

    Again the Germans were threatening to send Jews on their “last trip.” A member of the underground picked up Nasiell and took her to a drugstore.

    “I was sitting in the corner with the Star of David under my coat,” she related to Lane. When a Nazi soldier came in and asked what she was doing there, the pharmacist said she was waiting for a prescription.

    An underground worker then spirited her across the Netherlands by train to the eastern town of Nijverdal, where she joined the household of a childless couple named Pieter and Klasien Bakker. Along the way, they passed through Nasiell’s native city, but no one recognized her.

    At her new hiding place, Nasiell experienced more freedom of movement. She could go anywhere she wanted.

    “The neighborhood knew I was Jewish, but I did not have to display the star,” she told Lane. As the school principal was also hiding a Jewish boy, they both could go to school.

    When German troops commandeered the house she was living in, she and the family went to the country, where they lived on a farm in Hellendoren. During the time she was with the Bakkers, Nasiell said she grew so much that she had to cut the toes off her shoes because new ones were not available.

    As the Germans retreated toward the end of the war, they became more desperate, even launching a hand grenade through the house where Nasiell was living, nearly striking her.

    In May 1945, the Netherlands was liberated. Canadians and Americans on tanks came driving into town, throwing loaves of Wonder Bread at the exhilarated people, who were finally free. When she tasted the bread, Nasiell thought it was cake, she recalled.

    A few weeks after returning to the Bakkers’ house, she was reunited with her mother and sister. They had all lived in hiding, including her sister, who had been transferred 16 times.

    When she asked where her father was, she learned that he had died of a heart attack two weeks before the war ended. “I never saw my father again,” Nasiell said.

    “If I hadn’t been sent to eastern Holland, I would have starved,” she told Lane. “The western part of Holland had no food. And the fact that I was oblivious to what was happening around me saved my life.”

    The reunited family went back to their hometown, where her mother reopened their store.

    “Mother had a box of buttons that she displayed in the store’s window,” Nasiell recalled. “That’s why people came back to the store, because they needed buttons!” The store also sold clothing and linens.

    Nasiell returned to school, entering fifth grade as if she had never missed any learning time.

    An uncle with a store in northern Holland helped the family get back on its feet, and three years later, her mother was remarried to a man named Hans Hartog.

    In 1959, Nasiell came to the United States with her first husband, a Dutchman who served in the U.S. Army, and lived in California. They had two sons, Leon and Irvin. Later divorced, she married Gus Nasiell, a Swede, with whom she moved to the Village. He died last year.

    Neighbor Lane met Nasiell at the pool three years ago, became fascinated by her story and wrote a short biography for the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which chronicles the history of the Holocaust.

    “You are living history,” Lane tells Nasiell and feels adamant that her friend’s story be told before it is too late, before living witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust are gone.

    Nasiell said she feels great gratitude to the people who risked their lives to hide her.

    “I regret that I never went back to thank the families I lived with,” she said. “I never saw them again nor remained in contact.”

    She and Lane hope that by publicizing her story, descendants of the families who saved her may reach out and make contact after all these years.

    ​ Orange County Register