Not Ordinary at All
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon dedicated this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day to rescuers of Nazi victims who were not famous heroes but little-known people living “ordinary” lives. Yet some of those little-known rescuers lived anything but ordinary lives, like the extraordinary Berta Davidovitz Rubinsztejn.
When Berta celebrated her 90th birthday in New York this summer, one guest—Meir Brand, a white-haired grandfather of eight—made the trip from Israel. Berta calls Meir her son. He is, but not in any ordinary sense.
In 1941, when Berta was 18, her family of five fled Poland and crossed the Carpathian Mountains into still-unoccupied Hungary, where Jews were being persecuted but not yet hunted down. One night the family was hiding, crowded together, in a sheep stall, when Berta’s father, fearing his children would be killed, cried, “For what did I bring you into the world?” From her father’s desperation Berta took the conviction that sustained her for the next five years: “Better to be killed than to hide!”
Berta made her way to Budapest in 1942, where she began working for the Zionist underground through the youth movement Dror Habonim. She assumed a Gentile identity and the name Bigota Ilona and wore a crucifix around her neck. She would meet in a park with other Dror Habonim members living as Gentiles to plan operations and smuggle weapons.
Jewish parents in more dangerous places were then bribing Gentiles and using other means to smuggle their children into Budapest, where the Zionist underground had a list of the children’s names but often not their locations. The underground worked to find them, and any other Jewish children they could discover, and get them to safety. An indirect participant in many of their operations was Rudolf Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew, who was head of Hungary’s Zionist Aid and Rescue Committee. “I saw Kasztner in Budapest in 1943,” Berta remembered, but “we halutzim saw him only from afar. He knew we were Jews pretending to be Gentiles, and we knew not to talk to him because the Germans were watching him.”
In May, 1944, Kasztner made a daring deal to provide trucks to Adolf Eichmann in exchange for the safe passage of Jews out of Hungary by train, to the neutral country of Spain and ultimately to Palestine. The goal of Dror Habonim became getting Jewish children onto Kasztner’s train.
Meir Brand was one of those children. He was born in 1936 in Bochnia, Poland, and his family was forced into the Jewish ghetto there in 1942. After the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Meir remembered, “everyone knew the whole ghetto”—in Bochnia—“was going to Auschwitz.” Soon afterward, “the whole family,” three sets of parents, “convened to decide what to do.” They determined that one child of each set of parents would escape. “They told me, ‘Meir, from now on you are not Meir. You are Dudac Josef. Please remember not to speak about Jewish things.’ But they put a small pouch around my neck with a letter in it in Yiddish that read, ‘This is not Dudac Josef. This is Meir Brand. Please educate him as an observant Jew.’”
Meir with Berta on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
The family paid a Polish Gentile to smuggle Meir and two of his cousins, Itek and Miriam. The man took the boys by their hands, put Miriam into a sack on his back, and made the long trek to the Slovakian border. Itek had an aunt, not family to Meir or Miriam, who met them there and accompanied them by train to Budapest.
Itek’s aunt was living on a false passport that said she had two children. She had one child of her own. She could claim Itek as her other child, but not Meir. The family had found an adoptive family for Miriam, but not Meir. “So,” Meir remembered, “in the middle of September, a child of eight years old stands by himself in the Budapest train station.” Meir, homeless like hundreds of other Budapest refugees, took shelter under the city’s bridges.
Berta found him there after seven months—alone, frozen, and covered in blisters. “Jude?” she asked. “I am Dudac Josef!” he answered.
"I didn’t trust anybody,” Meir remembered, “because I was under such strict instructions not to connect with anyone.” Still, “I trusted Berta. Why, I don’t know.” When Meir said he was Dudac Josef, Berta thought, “That means, ‘I am a Jew.’ Somehow I knew he was a Jew. And I said, ‘I am Bigota Ilona.’” About that moment, Berta later told Meir, “I looked you in the eye and said to myself, that’s it, you’re mine.”
Berta put around 10 Jewish children on Kasztner’s train, but she was especially attached to Meir. When the train left Budapest, Berta brought Meir on board with her. Once on the train, she removed her cross. “She was finished with being Bigota Ilona,” Meir remembered. “I gave her my real name, Meir,” and showed her, for the first time, the precious pouch around his neck.
The train ride was initially a “very happy time,” he recalled. “We were sure we were going straight to safety.” But by the time they stopped, “everyone understood that we weren’t going to continue as planned. We knew something very wrong and bad had happened.”
What had happened was that Kasztner’s precarious negotiations were collapsing: Eichmann wanted more in ransom than Kasztner could gather. The train carrying Berta and Meir, with 1,684 passengers in all, was diverted to Bergen-Belsen. There, Berta recalled, “I was with the halutzim,” while Meir was in a barracks with the other children. Still very weak, he couldn’t clean himself or eat properly. Berta devoted herself to his care, and nursed him back to health.
Kasztner finally negotiated his passengers’ release. The train made its way to Switzerland, where Berta met Kasztner, her hero. “I thanked him,” she recalled. “He kissed me, and I kissed him.” This was their first and last meeting. But in 1954, during a libel trial in Jerusalem based on an accusation that Kasztner had collaborated with the Nazis, Berta appeared in court to support her hero.
By then, Berta and Meir had made aliyah together, in 1946. In Israel, Meir was adopted by family members, but remained close to Berta. At her 90th birthday party, Meir simply said of her, “She is a brave woman. She was never frightened.” Berta said of Meir, even more simply, “He is my son.”
Chaya Glasner is Marketing Associate at the Tikvah Fund.