Hansi Hartmann Brand endured torture, confronted Nazi executioners and spent much of her personal wealth to rescue European Jews during the Holocaust. But in Israel, Brand, who died last week, was at times scorned as a collaborator. She lived out an unheralded life helping orphans and immigrants, never receiving recognition for her wartime heroics.
Brand died in her sleep April 9 at her home in Tel Aviv. She was 89.
Despite the difficulties of her life in Israel, friends and relatives say, she never showed the bitterness or resentment that consumed her husband, Joel Brand, who died in 1964.
The couple, Hungarian Jews who owned a glove factory in prewar Budapest, were founding members of Va’ada, an underground relief and rescue committee in Hungary that was dedicated to helping Jews escape from Slovakia and Poland beginning in 1943.
By paying bribes and forging documents, the Brands succeeded in smuggling several thousand Jews to relative safety. But the fateful moment for the Brands came when they entered into negotiations with Adolf Eichmann. The mastermind of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies offered to free 1 million Jews in exchange for 10,000 winter-fitted military trucks, and he dispatched Joel Brand to carry the proposal to the Allies.
The British immediately denounced the scheme as absurd and arrested Brand. Unaware of her husband’s fate, Hansi Brand continued to negotiate with Eichmann, joined in the effort by another prominent Hungarian Jew, Rudolph Kastner. But with the failure of the deal, tens of thousands of Jews who were being offered up by Eichmann were sent instead to their deaths.
Hansi Brand was arrested by the Hungarian secret police and tortured before being released. Still, she worked on throughout the war in her rescue efforts, most of which were ultimately unsuccessful.
“Hansi and Joel were afraid of nothing,” Peretz Ribas, another member of the Hungarian Jewish underground, told an Israeli newspaper after her death. “Their actions could have cost them their lives and their livelihood, but they continued.”
After the war, the Brands and Kastner moved to Israel. They often blamed the wartime Jewish leadership for failing to act to rescue European Jews. Kastner ended up in court, accused of having used his dealings with the Nazis to enrich himself. In the midst of a trial, he was assassinated by Jewish extremists in front of his home.
Hansi Brand, who had been extremely close to Kastner and testified on his behalf, lived with her husband and two small sons on the Givat Brenner kibbutz when they first arrived in Israel. But they were miserable. Most of the people on the kibbutz seemed oddly unaware of what had happened in the Holocaust, and others who understood seemed to hold the Brands accountable for not having done more.
Hansi often told friends that had she come to Israel in a coffin, she would have been a national hero. Arriving alive, however, she was a burden and an embarrassment.
Motti Lerner, a playwright who wrote about the Kastner trial and became a good friend of Hansi, described her as a woman of enormous courage, integrity and perseverance. He said her reception in Israel was “humiliating,” a blow to a woman who had sacrificed so much and taken so many risks.
Rabbi Issar Frenkel, whose family helped Brand find work at the Yad Eliyahu orphanage, said she became fully involved in the children’s lives with an inordinate dedication. “She really cared for people,” he said.
Brand’s surviving son, Daniel, a 59-year-old engineer in Tel Aviv, said his mother worked on behalf of Ethiopian immigrants and continued visiting the orphanage until her final days.