A West Seattle woman has pleaded not guilty to theft after being accused of stealing $50,000 that an Auschwitz survivor and her husband kept in their kitchen pantry.
When Hermine Berner was shipped out of Auschwitz to another camp, the young woman was heartbroken. Much of her family had been killed and she’d lost track of her mother after they were separated at Auschwitz.
She survived the camps, and she and her sister endured afterward, in part, because of a stash of valuables their mother had buried in the ground. In all the years since, Berner, now 91, was determined to follow her mother’s repeated advice: Stow away some money at home, in case there’s a problem with the banks or trouble with the government.
It made sense and gave Berner a sense of security.
That was until earlier this year, when a caregiver allegedly stole more than $50,000 that she and her 97-year-old husband, Emanuel, kept hidden in the kitchen of their West Seattle condominium.
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Mary Celeste Park, 54, cared for the couple between February and July. She bought groceries and volunteered to clean the house. She gained the family’s trust, said the Berners’ daughter, Judy Townsend.
In July, Hermine Berner discovered $50,000 missing from inside a baking dish in the pantry.
On Thursday, Park pleaded not guilty to first-degree theft. Seattle police have searched Park’s home for the cash and have not found it.
“It took a lot for my poor mom to trust her and let her into her home,” said Townsend. “Mary quickly wormed into the family. I was thrilled my mom had such a nice companion. This just tears my heart apart.”
Charging documents said Park was hired to care for the couple two hours a day for $12 an hour. Soon, Hermine Berner’s heart medications began to disappear and she started to struggle mentally and physically. Park then offered to start working more hours, charges said.
When Hermine Berner accused Park of stealing money from her, the caregiver called Townsend to report that her mother was getting “confused,” according to charging documents. Townsend also heard her mother’s complaints about missing pills and money, but Park reassured her that Berner was mixed up, charges said.
In late July, Townsend fired Park. She contacted Seattle police that month after not being able to find the missing $50,000 or other hidden money, as well as two opal necklaces and a bracelet.
Townsend said that she has tried, for years, to persuade her parents to not keep so much money at home. But, she said, her mother, as well as her father, who lost everything in the Great Depression, thought what they were doing was right.
After World War II, Townsend said, her mother and a sister lived on gold and other items their mother had buried in the barn of their farm in Czechoslovakia. Without the stash, the family might not have made it, Townsend said.
“Considering what she went through and my dad living through the Depression, they thought it was the best. I never thought about anything happening because it really was so, so well hidden,” Townsend said. “I guess I always assumed if there was an earthquake, we would have money to buy groceries.”
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.