"We had a life before Auschwitz, and we had a life afterward. Living, suffering, loving people--it's all part of a life. What I am saying is, one goes on. Life goes on, and one goes on. One has to stay as decent and caring as one can. And because the Nazis were rotten, you don't have to become rotten."
-Hana Mueller Bruml
I often think about the remarkable life of Hana Mueller Bruml, and in this season of Passover, which ended last week, I felt it was finally time to write about the woman I considered a friend.
Hana was a 17-year-old student in Prague on March 15, 1939. On that cold and snowy day she watched the German Army occupy her city.
Hana knew "the screw would tighten" but dismissed the notion past atrocities against Jews could happen again in 20th century Czechoslovakia. Perhaps because the future seemed uncertain, Hana married Rudolf Schiff, a fellow student three years older than her, at the city hall. Since no housing was available, on their wedding night Hana and Rudolf went home to their own families.
The screw tightened. Jews lived in ghettos created by the Nazis. Hana wore a yellow Star of David on her clothing. Food was rationed. Entire families lived in a single room of an apartment. Jews could not be treated in hospitals. When Hana developed a bad infection in her arm, a gentile family member snuck her into the hospital for treatment.
In 1942, Hana, her husband and their families were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Theresienstadt was a phony "show camp" the Nazis used to hide their atrocities against the Jews. Families were allowed to remain together. The camp also served as a transit camp to the killing centers. Everybody lived in constant fear of being "on the list" for the next transport.
Hana worked as a nurse, mostly caring for sick children. There were few medical supplies. Most of the children did not survive the war.
When her husband Rudolf's parents were selected for transportation from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, he decided to accompany them. Hana never saw him again.
After her husband was transported to Auschwitz, Hana began a relationship with Bruno Mandel, a doctor in the hospital where she worked.
Hana and Bruno were deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Upon arrival, both went before Dr. Josef Mengele for "selection." Bruno was gassed. Hana was put to work as a slave laborer until being liberated in May of 1945.
Hana returned to Prague to find her family. She met and married Charles Bruml, who was also searching for his family. There were no survivors.
The Brumls emigrated to the United States in 1946.
Hana Bruml earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in psychology from George Washington University. She joined the staff of the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in 1968 and was named chief psychologist in 1971. While on staff, Dr. Bruml helped create the modern mental health system in northern Virginia by establishing staff training and patient day treatment programs.
She retired in 1988 and began serving as an evaluator for civil commitment hearings in Arlington County. I met Dr. Bruml when I began representing people in commitment hearings.
Before a person can be involuntarily hospitalized a doctor is appointed to evaluate them. Most evaluators gave detailed and highly technical diagnoses, but not Hana Bruml. She usually said: "He's really crazy and needs to go to hospital."
Charles Bruml died in 1998. Hana Bruml died in 2000. They left no survivors.
Dr. Bruml was very kind to me. I once asked her what did she want first when she was released from Auschwitz? "A toothbrush," she exclaimed.
That a woman whose entire family had been murdered, who spent years in Nazi concentration camps and was nearly worked to death could think only of brushing her teeth at the end of her ordeal struck me as remarkably humane.
The miracle of Hana Mueller Bruml's life is that a woman from whom so much was taken gave so much back to humanity.
In today's ugly political environment, remember the words of Hana Bruml: "One has to stay as decent and caring as one can. And because the Nazis were rotten, you don't have to become rotten."
Think of the Jews of Prague wondering every moment whether a soldier was going to knock on their door and tell them their family was to be sent to a concentration camp.
With the end of Passover and the threat of the virus, it is right to recall the lives of Hana Bruml and the Jews of Prague.
I owe Dr. Bruml an apology for the delay in writing this column. Whenever I tried writing about her before, I began crying and couldn't continue.
God bless her and all the Jews of Prague.
Charlie King is a longtime Loudoun resident and Leesburg-based attorney.