This is a guest post by Daniel Brand, author of Trapped by Evil and Deceit: The Story of Hansi and Joel Brand. Here, the author gives a personal introduction to the story of his parents, who helped to orchestrate an organized effort to save lives and end extermination at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
Promptly after Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944, my parents moved my brother Michael, who was at the time five and a half years old, and me, three and a half years old, to the protection of Wilma, a Christian Hungarian who worked at our house and lived with her partner Gabor. My parents housed them in the suburbs of the city and we went to live as their Christian children under Hungarian aliases which I do not recall. This is where my brother and I had spent the Nazi occupation in Hungary while my parents were busy trying to rescue Jews in Hungary and helping other persecuted people to survive.
We lived in their house for a few months going down to the coal room during air raids. The coal room was a kind of basement, but its top part stuck out above ground. The place was considered relatively safe since the house was new and the other residents did not know Wilma and Gabor; our presence there as their children was not supposed to draw any special attention. However, despite all the precautions taken, we found out—as did my mother and our temporary parents—that the residents indeed noticed that we were not the children of the Hungarian couple but rather Jewish children seeking refuge. My mother would visit us from time to time, and at one of these visits, one of the local women told her: “You must be the children’s mother. You better make sure that they don’t urinate outside,” insinuating we would be identified as Jews due to circumcision. When the frequency of air raids increased, Gabor built in the corner of the coal room, in a place that was considered relatively safe, a wooden bed for us to sleep in. When we tried to settle down there, protest was voiced that “foreign” children—not to explicitly mention “Jewish” —were taking over the best location in the coal room. My mother happened to be visiting at the time and she quickly realized that we were all in danger and asked to move us elsewhere.
We stayed there until January 1945.
I remember only a few things from that period: the terrible fear that overcame me at the look of Gabor when he once entered the house drunk; the bed he built for us at the corner of the coal room that we were not allowed to use, as it was given to an older Hungarian couple who resided in the building; and the array of makeshift coffins or stretchers in the yard occupied with sixteen of the building’s residents who were killed when a German mortar shell that didn’t quite make it to its intended destination penetrated the coal room and landed on the bed from which we were evicted. My last memory from there was the foot march in heavy snow and the climb over the high train battery near our house when we escaped the city toward the end of the war.
In January 1945, during the last days of the battles on Pest (the east part of Budapest), after the building changed from German to Russian hands back and forth a few times, we escaped on foot in the heavy snow to a deserted wood cabin in the outskirts of the city. One evening I went out of the cabin into the snow and met a Russian soldier; he gave me an unforgettable gift of bread, potatoes, and a black magic wand. We ate the bread and potatoes happily, and the wand accompanied me on my way to Israel, until it was confiscated at the socialistic Kibbutz “for the public good.” I have never seen it again.
In February of that year, the occupation of Budapest by the Russians was completed and we went back to our parent’s home in the city. It was miraculously left relatively intact.
Budapest was then a ghost city. Its people were dying of hunger, many houses were destroyed, and despair reigned all over. My strongest memory from that time is from a visit to the empty zoo that was completely deserted after all the animals had been eaten or killed.
We continued living in the forlorn city for one year until my mother was able to leave Hungary and entrust me and my brother with Peretz Révész, a family friend and Zionist activist, who was trusted with the mission to smuggle us to our father who was waiting for us in Slovakia. Peretz registered us in his false passport as his own children and so we left on the journey. After nearly two years in which we had not seen our father, we finally met him in Bratislava having crossed the border between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. On meeting with us, my father reflected in a book he wrote with my mother: “I have no words to describe my happiness to see them.” My brother Michael was about seven at the time and I was about five. The first thing my father did was treat us to a restaurant. After the shortage of food we had experienced in Hungary, the details of this meal were etched in my memory: a large bowl of soup with handles on both sides and a veal cutlet that was so large it slid over the edge of my plate.
In the summer of 1946 my father, my brother and I sailed from Marseille to Palestine boarding the Romanian ship Transylvania. This is what my father told of the journey:
Ahead of us, I was awaited by a country I had not yet learned to call home, a language I could not yet speak, and where I had not as much as a single dismal room to lay my head, but which I insisted to embrace […] Haifa’s lights blinked on the horizon. “You see,” I told my two sons, “This is Haifa.” I said this in Hungarian, but I knew that they had already begun hearing me in Hebrew. They, at least, arrived home.
I am unable to remember my father from the Nazi occupation period of Budapest that began in March 1944 until that meeting in Bratislava in the spring of 1946 since during most of that time he was not there. A short time after we were entrusted with the Hungarian couple that cared for us, my father started seeking, with others, ways to save Hungarian Jews by means of a “financial deal” with the Germans, or in other words—bribery or ransom. To the surprise of most of the parties involved, the Germans were interested in such a deal and after a series of meetings and talks, they sent my father abroad with a proposition to release Jews in exchange for goods, a deal known in the literature as the “Blood for Goods” deal.
At the beginning of May of 1944, when the Jews of Hungary were being sent to their death at a pace of twelve thousand people a day, the branch of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish community in Palestine, which worked at that time in Istanbul, received a one-of-a-kind telegram from Budapest, unparalleled in the history of the Holocaust. In the telegram, the Chairman of the Zionist Federation in Hungary informed the Istanbul delegation that a well-known rescue activist, member of the Budapest Rescue Committee, was about to arrive from Nazi-occupied Budapest to neutral Istanbul on an important mission and that a stay visa should be prepared for him.
Without consulting with the members of the Istanbul delegation, without reporting to the leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem or the senior leaders of the Aid and Rescue Committee founded in Palestine, and without preparing the requested visa, the head of the delegation in Istanbul, Chaim Barlas, informed by return telegram: “Let Joel come. Chaim awaits him.” My father Joel indeed came, but Barlas saw my father disembarking the airplane and left the place without meeting him and without arranging an entry visa to Turkey.
Without a visa, my father was supposed to stay at the airport until the morning and then return empty-handed on the same airplane. Most likely, he would have continued directly to the Auschwitz furnaces and his mission would have been obliterated. However, a “Nazi agent” named Bandi Grosz, who came with my father, altered the plans and enabled my father to leave the airport to tell the story of his mission and the cold reception that was prepared for him.
Many books have been written about this mission, but I could not find in any of them a reasonable explanation of the strange reception awaiting the emissary upon his arrival to Istanbul. This book attempts to tell the story of that mission, the emissary and the people around him, and the chain of events leading to it. That mission was the most promising opportunity to somewhat decrease the horrific dimensions of the Holocaust.
As the son of the protagonists in the play, I am trying to tell the story of this tragic mission—from start to end—as I understand it based on the insights I have grasped from my parents, all fully corroborated by testimonies and documents from that period. This book is not only a memorial for Hansi and Joel Brand, but it also aims to describe the events as they actually occurred.
Daniel Brand, Hansi and Joel’s one surviving son, has been researching the Hungarian holocaust for the last 20 years. Previously, he was a Scientific Attaché for the State of Israel, a senior advisor for Israel’s Department of Defense, and a researcher at Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. Earlier in his career, he served as lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defense Force.
Trapped by Evil and Deceit is now available from ASP or wherever you buy books.