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Local writer co-authors account of survival
Masada Siegel

Bronia Brandman was silent for 50 years. One summer day on the subway, a stranger noticed the numbers tattooed on her arm from Auschwitz. He walked up to her and said, "So you mean this really happened?"

"I usually wore long sleeves while at work teaching. I didn't want anyone asking questions about the numbers tattooed on my arm." Brandman explained. "Occasionally I wore short sleeves on the subway. Sometimes, people would notice and avert their eyes. This man who approached me, he lived in an apartment complex where someone kept saying the Holocaust never happened. That aroused me and I told him my story, on the subway. I told a perfect stranger what I had never told the people closest in the world to me about my life. I felt secure, the encounter was accidental and I knew I would never see him again.
"He was very grateful, because he was being convinced that the Holocaust never happened." 

Carol Bierman of Wesley Hills co-authored "The Girl Who Survived," with Bronia Brandman.

Brandman chose not to talk about her experiences during the Holocaust to anyone, not even her husband and children. They did not know anything about her parents and siblings. She couldn't speak of the horrors she saw and endured. It was simply beyond speech. 

She retired from teaching and started volunteering at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, New York. One of the other guides, Bertha Lowitt, kept asking her to Lowitt was persistent, as she believed Brandman's experiences were important for people to hear.
Brandman spoke for the first time to an audience of people she knew, docents at the museum. The response was overwhelming and it convinced her to share her story at high schools and museums.

At a tour of the museum that Brandman conducted, she met Carol Bierman, when she visited with a group of teachers. Bierman, a teacher of Holocaust studies at SUNY Rockland, was intrigued and felt a need to document Brandman's story.

Bierman, a resident of Wesley Hills, and Brandman spent countless days together and co-authored of the story of Brandman's life in the newly released book for youths "The Girl Who Survived," which was published in hardback by Hyperion/Madison Press Books in August and will come out in paperback published by Scholastic.

"Bronia did not think her story was worthy of publication," Bierman said.  "I came to her when I first met her nine years ago and suggested that we co-author the story."
Brandman was a mere teenager when the war ended.

"When I realized that people were not interested in hearing about it, it sent me inwards into a shell. For some reason I had a feeling in my throat of choking, and I could not bring myself beyond that feeling. I don't know if it was the guilt I felt of having survived or I was feeling myself choke in the gas chambers. It's gone away since I started telling my story."

Speaking was not easy for Brandman, but the more she opened up, the easier it became. Every day during the war, she risked her life, her every move geared towards survival, and yet, she lost most of her family no matter that they all desperately tried to stick together.
"I could not talk about my family at first - that came a year or two later when I was speaking at a high school - and I did it on a whim. The audience responded very caringly. It freed me to talk about my family, my parents, and my siblings. I told the audience that I had never spoken about my family - and they were so appreciative -  it was incentive for me to open up and start sharing about them."

Her story, while extremely painful, shows her creativity and extreme courage under impossible circumstances. Brandman even came face-to-face with Dr. Josef Mengele -  the Auschwitz physician who performed human experiments and who determined who arriving in the camp would survive or go the gas chambers -  and spoke to him, directly, which was unheard of, asking to be taken off the list of people who were being sent to the gas chambers. Her courage, persistence and the timing of an air raid siren saved her life.
Bierman was impressed with her collaborator's tenacity.

"Bronia was a very resilient child," she said. "To quote her, 'I was thought of as stubborn in my family.' These attributes served her well throughout the war years and after."
Not only a survivor, Brandman is inspirational, while she does believe luck played a role in her survival, in her book she writes about numerous split-second, gutsy decisions, which saved her life.

"I also believe that there was a great determination to survive and not let the Nazis win," said Bierman. "Bronia was (and still is) a very strong person with strong convictions. I feel that even at that young age she had beliefs that carried her through the toughest times."
Masada Siegel can be reached at

September 2010