Dr. Theodor Philip Haas: PCP&S Botanist and Holocaust Survivor


By Dan Flanagan

“We have been able to secure through the Quaker Foundation of Assistance to Worthy Refugees, the services of THEODOR PHILIP HAAS, a botanist of wide repute on the continent, and who will serve part time supervising the Kilmer Garden.”

With this message, dated May 1, 1942, president IVOR GRIFFITH P1912 signaled the arrival of Dr. Haas who spent the next 18 years at PCP&S as medical plant specialist (1942–1950), plant taxonomist (1951–1960), and museum curator (1946–1960.) Formerly, Dr. Haas was the assistant curator at the Botanical Museum of Munich- Nymphenburg (1929–1937). He received his PhD from the University of Munich in 1932.

Quote9His part-time role as supervisor of the Kilmer Gardens was a far cry from the Botanical Museum of Munich-Nymphenburg where he served for eight years. Yet, this humble position at PCP&S must have seemed heaven-sent. His family had lived safely in Munich since 1759 but the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938 escalated his danger to new levels. He had lost his job at the Botanical Museum the year before and now faced internment in a concentration camp. Records show that Dr. Haas had been released from “a concentration camp” in 1940. Upon release, he fled Munich on July 29 and crossed Eurasia and the Pacific Ocean to reach New York. He then moved to Haverford, Pennsylvania, in October 1941, to attend a workshop for refugees seeking college appointments. As Haas explained to a friend, “The purpose of the ‘workshop’ is to learn English, to see American life in families and schools in surrounding colleges—and to come in contact with persons who can help us to bring to a solution the question of existence.”

As Dr. Haas settled into his new surroundings he felt comfortable enough to resume a yearly ritual from happier times, with the aid of a special student: ROBERT SPECK BI’44, MS’47, DSc’51.

“Since I seemed to be one of Dr. Haas’ longest student friends, I was usually asked to take his picture for him on his birthday…[I remember he had] an Emerson portable radio [and] was always showing it off…I was about to snap his picture [when] he suddenly called out ‘moment,’ an expression frequently used by the good Dr. ‘I must take my radio out of the cloth bag so it can be seen’…I was ready again [when] a second ‘moment’ distress call was issued. Now he insisted on opening the plastic cover…so the knobs and dials would show up in the photograph…I was again ready [when] a third ‘moment’ came forth. It appeared the good Dr. didn’t like the particular music playing on his radio, and he insisted [on] some classical music before I took his picture. [Now he] was finally satisfied that his picture would represent the true Dr. Haas on his birthday.”

The radio, however, might have had more significance to Dr. Haas than anybody thought. On September 23, 1939, three weeks after WW2 began, Nazi authorities made it illegal for Jews to own radios. Perhaps a violation of this kind (and love for classical music) sent Dr. Haas to the concentration camp. But music wasn’t the only thing heard on the radio. On June 2, 1942, the BBC reported the estimated deaths of 700,000 Jews in Europe. Shortly afterward, Dr. Haas contacted a friend in Switzerland through the Red Cross:

“Since some months I make my living without foreign help, and I am very happy about this…But, please have you heard anything of mother? The last news came in June, dated May 15th. I am so disturbed about the fate of mother. What may have happened since May? Is she still in her home? It is so terrible, not to know of her and not to be able to help if she needs help! Mother is now more than 71 years old. I could be very happy here if I would not have these troubles about the fate of mother…Please, let me know…what you may hear of her, and …also my cousin Arnold, who was a professor for Science.”

He soon learned his mother was deported in July 1942 but nobody knew where. That was all he knew until American GIs, like Pvt. Richard Rudolf, the son of a woman who befriended Dr. Haas at International House, advanced into Germany. On Nov. 18, 1945, Pvt. Rudolf sent a letter to his family that included information for Dr. Haas:

“Before I left Munich [a friend] looked up Frau Haas’s file in the captured Munich police records. Her file was all right until about 1935 when JUDIN was stamped across the papers in big letters…But, the worst part of all were the pictures of her which made up part of the record. The first was taken in 1928, a pleasant picture of a distinguished looking woman of about 60. And the last, on a Gestapo card, was of a frightened, thin old lady of 70...Towards the end of the file were a number of appeals and requests to leave the country and go to America. These and everything else in the files came to an end sometime during 1940 or 41...My friend said that she most likely was sent to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia ...That police file on Frau Haas was one of the worst pieces of evidence against Nazism and anti-Semitism I have ever seen. What made it all the worse was the fact that the Haas family was evidently a very fine one. Frau Haas’s father was ‘Koenigliche Bayerischer Leibarzt’ (personal physician to the King of Bavaria) and otherwise distinguished in medicine and science.”

Somewhat reassuringly, Dr. Haas learned from another serviceman she died of natural causes in the spring of 1943. So he wrote Pvt. Rudolph to call off the search. “She was only [a few] days ill. It is very hard for me, but in other wise my mother escaped any atrocity by the Nazi, and this is a consolation to me. I thank you for your kind offer to help.”

With the war at an end, Dr. Haas considered his options. He anticipated naturalization in early 1946 and thought of improving his position elsewhere. “It is nearly impossible for me...to teach. We in our age cannot get rid of the foreign accent, and this disturbs the student…I would like very much to get to tropical regions like Florida, California or especially the Hawaiian islands.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that PCP&S bestowed the additional title of museum curator on Dr. Haas in 1946, which he held until his retirement in 1960. Three years later he finally moved to Hawaii where he kept in touch with old friends like Dr. Speck:

“Mio carissimo amigo Roberto, I thank you for your letter, dated February 2nd [1976] which in Bavaria they called ‘Lichtmess’ because the length of the days became longer, but certainly you were—as a biologist—looking for the ground-hog…It was one of my wisest decisions to move to Waikiki ... Of course, I still have the osteo-arthritis and am confined to a wheel-chair. But I am very active…I am on the mailing list of the botanical Dept. of the University of Hawaii and when they have [seminars] I come…Now, very cordial regards to all the living Specks, male and female. Your Hawaiian aborigin, T. Haas.”

Dr. Haas died a year later and was buried with his prized radio near the shore of Waikiki.

The papers of Dr. Theodor Philip Haas are preserved at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University. Selected copies of correspondence from this collection are in the Helfand Archives Room at USciences’ J.W. England Library.


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