Image vs reality: The story of Hansi Brand

Survivors, especially those arriving in Israel, often found themselves in awkward and psychologically difficult situations.

January 29, 2015 14:36
4 minute read.
Survivors of Nazi concentration camps

New immigrants, survivors of Nazi concentration camps, after their arrival at the Atlit reception camp on November 4, 1944.. (photo credit: KLUGER ZOLTAN/GPO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)


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A recent article by Sharon Geva questions the accuracy of the image of Hansi Brand in Israeli memory; “Wife, lover, woman: The image of Hansi Brand in Israeli public discourse” appears in the latest issue of Nashim.

The story concerns a figure who was born in Budapest in 1912 and moved to Israel with her family after World War II; dying in Tel Aviv in 2000. The years prior to her immigration are the controversial ones: they reveal as much about her as they do about the ways the public preferred to present and remember her – ways which apparently changed with the times.

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Although Brand played an active role in the Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest, her importance seems to have been marginalized and her actions reinterpreted to suit a more traditional woman’s role. Despite the fact that she was a witness in both the Kasztner and Eichmann trials and published Satan and the Soul (1960), her version of what had transpired, it has been a battle to gain public acknowledgment of the central role she played.

Because of her knowledge of German, she was able to communicate with Joel Brand when he arrived in Hungary; they were both active members of the same youth movement.

The connection between the two strengthened, and the couple married in 1935. Fluency in this language enabled her to become active on many levels before and after the Nazi conquest.

Hansi became an activist, at first, on a familial level. Thus she was able to rescue her sister and family, who had been deported to Poland in 1941, and to have her own husband returned from forced labor in the Hungarian army in 1942. She realized that by obtaining false papers in which Jews were presented as Christians, she could help not only her own family but also refugees from Poland and Slovakia. After the March 1944 invasion of Hungary, she came to the conclusion that she could help Hungarian Jews as well – by employing similar methods.

When the deal was being struck with the Nazis to supposedly exchange a million Jews for 10,000 trucks, Eichmann sent Joel Brand to Istanbul to deal with some of the arrangements. Though left alone with two children, Hansi began to negotiate with the authorities to the best of her abilities.

She met with Eichmann, tried to delay the deportation of Jewish children and made many judgment calls during this time. She strove to understand when it was appropriate for her to speak up, and when it seemed best to involve others. She was responsible for bringing in Kasztner to meet with Eichmann; consequently, the passenger list containing 1,684 Jews was considered to belong to the Kasztner train.

Part of the difficulty that arose from assessing the role of these Hungarian leaders stemmed from the fact that after the war ended, there was a tendency to reject any Jewish leader who did not advocate armed resistance. Because these individuals worked with the Nazis, they began to be perceived as collaborators, although the definition of collaborator was not at all clear-cut.

Did they actually work with the Nazis in order to save Jews? While doing so, did the Hungarian leaders consider the possibility of eliminating Eichmann, the powerful mastermind of so many devastating activities? Was armed resistance an option, or was this option simply rejected automatically? How were these Hungarian leaders actually perceived? For the Brands, their goal was to save Jews, but they had no master plan per se.

They were essentially middlemen, doing their best in a Sisyphean effort. Unlike her husband, Hansi did not have any formal status on the committee; this fact would devalue her role and importance in the public eye, and made it harder to assess her contribution. The fact that she had been tortured by the Hungarian police did not seem to matter.

Was Hansi also Kasztner’s lover, or was she Joel’s wife – or both? In the Eichmann, trial she is referred to solely as his Brand’s wife.

Survivors, especially those arriving in Israel, often found themselves in awkward and psychologically difficult situations.

They were not sure if and how to relate their experiences. As a result, Hansi Brand had difficult decisions to make. Was it preferable to remain silent? If one spoke, who would understand? Did one have to apologize for having survived? Were these Hungarian leaders being judged by their fellow Jews? In Hansi’s case, there were those who accused her of having abandoned Hanna Szenes – yet in reality, Brand did not even know about the mission and its failure! The image journalists chose to present to the public was often at odds with reality.

By publishing her own story, she hoped to alter these perceptions – but according to Geva, the change did not occur until the 1960s, following the publication of a positive article in the magazine Ha-Isha. By this time, the way in which the Holocaust was being perceived in Israeli society had also undergone changes, which enabled a change in approach.

At the same time, Brand spoke up for herself a number of times throughout her years in Israel. The fact that she lived a long life enabled her to witness the aforementioned changes, and to respond to them.

It was no easy task to face the Israeli public immediately following the Holocaust.

The fact that she was a woman most definitely had impact on her image – and it was a woman’s magazine that played a pivotal role in changing that image.

The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.

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