By Bronia Brandman
I was born in Jaworzno, a small Polish town near the German border, only 18 miles from Auschwitz.
I was 8 when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and we immediately began experiencing their unspeakable brutality. My family fled to our uncle’s town, Mielec, where the Germans forced many of the Jewish men into the synagogue, locked the doors and set the building ablaze, burning alive all those inside. Other Jewish men were butchered in the slaughterhouse and hung on meat hooks.
I was 9 when I became a smuggler to supplement our starvation rations. In 1941, the Germans designated my older sister, Mila, age 18, for a slave labor camp. My teen-age brother, Mendek, volunteered to go instead. He was the only other one of my six siblings to survive the war. But they deported my parents and Tulek to Auschwitz and murdered them there in 1942. I was with my parents that fateful day. We were kept under heavy guard in the schoolyard, with barking dogs patrolling its perimeters, before being dispatched to be murdered. I managed the impossible feat of escaping that schoolyard.
In the summer of l943, when I was 12, my two baby sisters, Rutka and Macia, and my older sister, Mila, were transported to Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele directed Rutka, Macia and me to the gas chamber line, and Mila, to the line slated for the concentration camp. I managed to escape the gas chamber line and joined Mila. A few months later Mila came down with typhus and was consigned to the Revier (infirmary). I chose to join her there. At some point, Bozenka, the Jewish nurse who had been put in charge of the Revier, informed me that the Nazis planned to send my sister and all the other infirmary patients to the gas chamber and that she was transferring me to a Christian barrack to save me. She was risking her own life to do this. In the coming months, I too was stricken with typhus and in a coma for weeks. I emerged from it about two or three days before the Death March, on January 18, l945. Consumed with high fever, I marched in 20 degrees below zero weather from Auschwitz toward Germany, without food or drink. Bozenka again came to my rescue by carrying me when I was about to be shot when I was slowing down walking.
In April 24, 2017, FIDF (Friends of the Israel Defense Forces), invited me to go on a Mission, “From the Holocaust to Independence” to Poland and Israel, accompanied by 40 top brass IDF and 40 ardent supporters of the FIDF from all over the US and South America. I had serious medical problems at the time. But how could I refuse this incredible honor, to return to the place of our total degradation and annihilation, this time surrounded by our valiant and proud IDF, returning not with trauma but in triumph.
The IDF was concerned about the toll my returning to Auschwitz would exact. But I was barely moved or upset by its physical appearance. Is it possible to recreate the feel of Auschwitz, as it existed? I think not. Most of the telltale signs, the hallmarks of Auschwitz, are obliterated. Verdant grass, fertilized by human ashes, has replaced
the knee deep mud. No more shrunken skeletons, with their terrifying deep set and haunted eyes, telegraphing the point of no return – annihilation in the gas chamber or expiration. No longer did machine gun armed guards man the watchtowers. Gone were the electrified fences, the latrine for 800 people monitored by the guards’ watchful eyes and raised guns inside the latrine, and the constant smoke spewing from the four gas chambers, which consumed 2,000 people each, blocking out the sun and the sky. Now I smelled fresh air and not burning flesh. The constant inner refrain of terror, “will I be sent to the gas chambers tomorrow?” also dissipated. Don’t get me wrong—it was not as if I felt nothing. But shaken and traumatized? No.
Rather, I had a life altering personal experience in Auschwitz, which one might say tracked the “From Holocaust to Independence” trajectory of the State of Israel. The four gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau were demolished as were two farmhouses which were used as gas chambers. The original gas chamber in Auschwitz proper
though still exists as it was in l942. I entered that sinister place of horror and was immediately overwhelmed. I was face to face with my murdered parents. It felt palpably
as if they were waiting for me. Call it supernatural, call it wishful thinking, it does not matter. I know what I sensed.
For 75 years I have denied my parents’ existence. My 11-year old mind, struggling to make sense of losing my parents, concocted the fiction that they had willingly abandoned me. Consequently, I did not need to mourn them. Was that rationalization a way of self-preservation in order to survive? My sisters’ slaughter left me feeling guilt ridden and unworthy of living. Was it my obligation to go with them to the gas chamber? And here I was, telling my parents that I never mourned their death that because of what had happened to us, I have been unable to cry ever since the night the Germans gassed them and Tulek.
I felt my parents embrace me with warmth, deep caring, understanding and unconditional love. I felt euphoric. The heaviness lifted as I repossessed my wonderful parents. My spirits soared even higher as I spoke to each of them.
My father was a Talmudic scholar with an encyclopedic mind. As a devout Jew, he had prayed three times daily that his eyes might yet behold Zion and Jerusalem, just as Jews have prayed for 2,000 years. “Dad, could you ever have imagined that tomorrow I will fulfill your dream and fly on the wings of an Israeli jet to our holy city of Jerusalem?”
My mother had been the kindest, most pious woman I had ever known. Yet she loved life and was passionate about dancing. Warm and wise, she was known never to criticize or raise her voice. “Mom, you must have watched Tulek gasp for his last breath in the gas chamber, because the children died before the adults. Knowing how selfless you were, perhaps your last thoughts were about me, hoping against hope that I had made it out safely when the Germans rounded us up in that schoolyard before dispatching you to Auschwitz. Can you believe it Mom?
Tomorrow I am flying to Jerusalem. I will ignore my breathing and balance problems and I will dance, dance, dance with abandon in honor of our Israel’s 69th year of independence, “From the Holocaust to Independence.”
How can I describe my joy at being in Israel? My pride in Israel’s achievements restored my dignity as a Jew. It made me feel 6’ tall and empowered me to laugh, 25 years after liberation. I am in awe of the IDF, their valor, their heart, and their risking their lives to guarantee our children’s future.
In Auschwitz, the Nazis obliterated my past; I forgot that I had a family once. There was no hope of a future. The only way out was through the chimney, in smoke. The world abandoned us. Six million slaughtered, 1.5 million innocent children murdered was of no consequence to the world.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage has empowered me to tell my story, 50 years after WWII ended and reach thousands of young students over the course of almost 20 years. I am eternally grateful. Judging from the thank you letters I receive, the students resonate with the senseless loss of my family. I can aspire to no greater achievement than to have in some way enabled them to remember the tragic consequences of prejudice. I thank Hashem for giving me the strength to continue sharing my story.
Holocaust survivor Bronia Brandman (second from right) walks
through the front gate of the Auschwitz death camp with Brig. Gen.
Zvika Haimovich (first on left), Holocaust survivor Giselle Cycowicz (second from left), Friends of the Israel Defense Forces National VP Robert Cohen (middle), and Maj. Gen. Meir
Klifi-Amir (first on right); (Photo: Brooklyn Daily Eagle)