Brand, Hansi (1912-2000)

Budapest-born Hansi Hartmann was a lovely young woman, socially active, and full of life and joy. She studied psychology at the university where she embraced Zionism. She met Joel Brand who just returned to Hungary in 1933. She was an ardent Zionist and Joel was a rabid Communist agitator, who roamed the world on his missions. They married in 1935 and settled down to run knitting and glove factory.  Soon Joel converted to Zionism and they put their considerable talents to work for their cause.

People who knew her and worked with her, called her “The Woman Who Knows No Fear.” She was a committed person, tough, ready to fight her battles. She was a person of initiative and did not shy away from carrying them out, without fuss and without self aggrandizement. She was both a thinker, full of wisdom, a strategic planner as well as a field operative, a ground soldier and one not loathe to step into the mud and dirty her shoes. 

Before Kastner arrived in Budapest, she and her husband Joel visited Eichmann daily and in the interim, when Joel went off to Istanbul, she handled Eichmann and gained his respect. She loathed him and the petit-bourgeois mannerisms of this murderer. She stood up to him time and again and he knew that he was facing a hardened adversary. With Kastner’s arrival from Kolozsvár, they became a trio of courageous, young, brave Zionist activists. When Joel left for Istanbul, Hansi introduced Kastner to Eichmann.

Hansi and Kastner became lovers. When asked at the Eichmann trial to verify their relationship, she confirmed it in public. 

As the Nazis entered in 1944, three hundred thousand Hungarian Jews were sent to concentration camps in Poland. Among them was Hansi’s younger sister, her husband, and their two children. It hit Hansi hard. She started to fully comprehend what was happening. She could not make peace with the fact of losing them. A very strong-willed person by nature, and endowed with resolve and courage, she was not ready to suffer this passively. She employed a well-connected Hungarian espionage agent, Jozsef Krem who agreed for large sums of money to bring her sister and family out to safety.

From that catalytic moment on, the trio of Hansi, Joel, and Kastner threw themselves into the task of saving people with their Rescue Committee.

In Israel, straight talking Hansi caused an unabated furor remarking that Chana Szenes, the celebrated parachutist heroine, broke under the torture and revealed the whereabouts of her comrades Joel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein, their landing place as well as their schedules and meeting places. Hansi spoke out in view of her own experience and behavior when she was interrogated under torture by the Hungarians and her steadfastness during dire duress. She further derided their mission as stupid and harmful, sloppily organized, unprepared, and handled with extreme irresponsibility. The mission was billed as coming to save Jews. It interrupted delicate negotiations with Eichmann as well as the ones conducted behind Eichmann’s back. A train loaded with one thousand six hundred eighty-four passengers waited to move out of the Kellenföldi railroad station. It jeopardized the Jewish Chalutz underground activists in Budapest and many of the ongoing clandestine operations that had to be held back. The parachutists were heroes, she said, with no place to go. There was no exit strategy. It was a waste of three beautiful young people and it was a mess.

Throughout the siege of Budapest and the horrific Red Army bombardments and shelling Hansi assumed another task. She searched day and night among the ruins for the many abandoned Jewish children, left behind when their parents were deported. Totally abandoned, traumatized, and foraging for food and shelter they ranged from toddlers to teens. Many died. Hansi assigned herself the task of collecting the strays from among the ruins and cellars and bring them to the children homes being run by the Chalutzim and the Red Cross. In tandem she cared for her two little boys and was actively engaged in the Kastner rescue efforts.

After the war, Hansi and her boys made their way to Switzerland and on to Palestine where they were reunited with Joel. The Brands settled in Kibbutz Giv’at-Brenner, and then moved to Tel Aviv. Years later Hansi revealed, ‘Joel I liked, he is the father of my sons, Kastner, I loved.’

Hansi found employment as a social worker with the Tel Aviv Municipality. She then worked at an orphanage in a Tel Aviv working class suburb.  Ever active, she made it her business to meet soldiers, waiting at the ubiquitous army hitchhiking posts stations along the roads. She prepared and brought along little bags of walnuts, sweets, and candy for distribution to the soldiers.  ‘These are the fighters who protect us, let’s give them some attention,’ she kept saying.

As was her custom, she rose at four o’clock in the morning, straightening her bed and preparing for the day. On that particular day of April 2000, she suddenly felt ill. She went to the door, releasing the lock and called her neighbors for help. When the ambulance arrived, eighty-eight year-old Hansi was gone. She was laid to rest next to her son Michael and her husband Joel.

 

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