Bronia Brandman pulls up a sleeve on her leather jacket and shows the blue tattoo inked on her forearm that is a muted witness to her pain under the Nazis at Auschwitz.
For 50 years, she said, she couldn’t speak about it; for 25 years, she couldn’t laugh; and to this day, she cannot cry. But she remembers every detail of those haunting days.
Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, telling her story is the driving force of Brandman’s life. Her mission is to educate others.
The 89-year-old said being among the last who can offer personal testimony is especially important at a time when a rising tide in global anti-Semitism is spreading “like wildfire,” while fewer young people know about the Holocaust and its death camps.
“Sixty percent of millennials, which means between 18 and 34, don’t know that Auschwitz existed. This is so painful,” she said citing a report.
“We need to teach our children what words, what racism, what lies mean…” Brandman, said during an interview at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. Standing near an exhibit about Auschwitz her words had a poignancy.
The display included concrete posts from a camp fence covered in barbed and electrified wires, a collection of prisoners’ personal items and a rusty, German rail car like those used to transport women, men and children to Auschwitz and other death camps.
As she spoke, a group of students visiting the museum, spontaneously gathered around and sat quietly on the floor and listened to her story.
Brandman was born in the town of Jaworzno, Poland in 1931. She grew up in her grandfather’s home with her five siblings, and her parents, who owned a hardware store.
She led an idyllic life until the war began, and Jewish families were forced from their homes and businesses, and then rounded up. Most of her immediate and extended family was sent to the concentration camps. She never saw her parents and one of her two brothers again.
Brandman and her three sisters evaded capture, hiding and surviving on little food. But they were eventually caught, crammed into a rail car made for livestock and sent to Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people, most of them Jews were gassed, shot, hanged or starved. In all, 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Her first memory there is of Josef Mengele, the German doctor who conducted horrific experiments on thousands of Jews at Auschwitz, she said.