Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

Saved By the Proverbial Rich Uncle

- Eliane Bros-Brann ‘54


My parents were German Jews from Berlin. My father, a PhD in Philosophy, was a professor and journalist. He lost all his jobs because of the anti-Jewish laws. At the age of 28 he wrote a book called "Nietzsche und die Frauen" which was published in 1931. It was written under his name with the original spelling, Hellmut Walther Brann, before it was changed upon arrival in New York to Henry Walter Brann. This book was burned like all the others written by Jews. My mother was an elementary school teacher and a great pedagogue all her life.

In June 1933, as soon as they could after Hitler came to power, they left Berlin for Paris, where I was born in June 1937. My birth name was Eliane Juliette Brann. My parents had expected to spend the rest of their lives in France, but the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy government had other ideas. Between 1939 and 1940 my father was interned as an "enemy alien" in various French camps, the last one in the southwestern part of France. Most of the internees were transferred from France back to Germany where they often died in German death camps.

During this period, my mother and I left Paris for Marseilles together with large numbers of people in what the French call "the exodus," often depicted in movies. The truck my mother and I were in was stopped on the road by the Germans. According to family lore, because I spoke only French, I saved the day despite the fact that my mother had no valid documentation. That was because just before leaving our apartment in Paris, the concierge grabbed her papers out of her hand and tore them up! This was a traumatic event that my mother could never forget. Luckily the Germans let us go thinking we were just ordinary French people going from Nazi Occupied France to the south of France which was unoccupied.

My father managed to escape from the internment camp and succeeded somehow in meeting up with my mother in Marseilles. While in this camp, my father met a like-minded prisoner who had also done humanities in Germany, and they spent their time translating Latin into Greek and Greek into Latin! Another part of family lore. Marseilles was full of refugees, all trying to get an exit visa to leave France and if possible a visa to enter the United States. The American consul at that time, Varian Fry, was able to provide visas for many refugees. Luckily my father had the proverbial rich uncle in New York who supplied us with the requisite affidavits, but still leaving France was not easy. My parents and I were finally able to get to Lisbon via Spain, which was a popular port of departure from Europe, as Portugal was a neutral country.

My parents told me later that during this voyage the refugees were helped through Spain by a sort of "underground railway" composed of Spanish Republicans (anti-fascists). We were able to leave Portugal by airplane, which at that time was an unheard of expensive luxury, but this we owed to the rich uncle who had left for the USA much earlier and paid our airfares. We took a Pan Am Yankee Clipper, which I believe was one of the last planes to cross the Atlantic in July 1941. I have good reasons to think that the famous surrealist painter, Max Ernst, was on the same plane as we were! His escape to the USA was masterminded by Varian Fry, president of the Emergency Rescue Committee as well as American Consul in Marseilles.

According to my parents’ description of this trip, the Yankee Clipper landed in New York harbor, and we were cheered by crowds waiting to greet us. However, I had caught impetigo on the Spanish trains, certainly not the epitome of cleanliness, so my family was sent to Ellis Island. My mother and I were in the hospital there but my father was interned, once again, simply so as not to leave his family in the lurch. It was either in Ellis Island or immediately upon arrival that my parents changed my first name to Elaine, because, as they said, rightly so, Eliane was impossible to pronounce and Americans might say "alien"…

Among my first childhood memories was the fact that in the hospital we were given orange juice, a great luxury in Europe and especially in times of war. I also remember the flight on the Pan Am plane because we slept in regular bunk beds, and ate our meals at a table. The plane was not crowded and I was able to run around. As it was very hot, especially flying near the Azores, and as air-conditioning was unknown at the time, I would run around mostly naked! I was later told that I was a very "wild" child. There was one stop-over in the Azores for re-fueling, and according to my parents we were able to eat in a beautiful restaurant on the beach, my first contact with Portugal. This was later followed by innumerable trips to that lovely country, given that my husband’s sister, Annie, married a Portuguese man, who in turn was a refugee from Portugal to France, walking over the Pyrenees mountains to escape from being sent with the Portuguese colonial army to Angola.

My paternal grandparents had escaped to Switzerland, thanks again to the proverbial rich uncle who by then lived on Park Avenue and had three European servants! My grandmother, whom I had never met, died in Switzerland. After the war, my father was able to bring his father to New York, where he lived the last years of his life on the upper West side not far from us. He never learned English, because in that neighborhood he said he got along fine with German. He lived in a sort of boarding house on Broadway, where in fact he had a "girlfriend" his age.

On my mother’s side, her father had died while she was very young, and my parents could not get her mother out of Germany. They learned after the war that she had been deported from Germany to Warsaw and died in the Warsaw ghetto. The Nazis sometimes deported Jews to ghettos in another country, either murdering them there or later sending them on to concentration camps.

My father’s sister and her husband, both physicians and psychiatrists, got a Canadian visa thanks to their uncle (same person). They would have preferred living in New York, but obviously had no choice in the matter. They had to interrupt their medical studies in Berlin and went to Rome where in the early years Jews were not persecuted. They got their medical degrees in Italian. They then lived in Toronto where they had to get Canadian degrees, as Italian medical degrees were not recognized. They lived in Toronto most of their lives, except during the war when they were commandeered into working in a Canadian psychiatric hospital in Whitby, Ontario. Most of the patients there were treated with electro-shock treatment.

Aside from my aunt and uncle, we had few close relatives, only some distant cousins on my mother’s side who got out of Germany in time and also lived in New York City.

We are a family with few or no children. My aunt and uncle in Toronto were childless. My sister-in law and brother-in-law in Lisbon also had no children. My sister-in-law once removed never married, because under Salazar’s fascist regime the sister of a deserter was not marriageable. I had only one child, my daughter Valérie Aimée, but she has no children either. I have two second cousins on my mother’s side, both in the New York area, one just recently deceased at the age of 60. Neither one of them has any children. I sometimes wonder whether this strange situation was not partly due to the war and to the trauma caused by the family’s multiple exiles… Germany to France to New York, Germany to Italy to Toronto, Coimbra (Portugal) to France via the Pyrenees and back to Lisbon.

As far as my school years were concerned, I was admitted to Hunter College junior high school in the 7th grade and then HCHS, where I got a very good education as my future studies at the Sorbonne proved. I was the valedictorian of our graduating class in 1954.

After that I went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio but stayed only two years. I then came back to New York City and went to CCNY for a year. I moved to Paris in 1957 with my first husband and have lived in Paris ever since. Valérie Aimée, my daughter, was born in 1958 in Paris. I re-married in 1969 and am still happily married to Jacques Bros, almost 40 years later.

My father died in 1978 and we brought my mother over to Paris to live with us. She died soon afterwards, but one shattering memory of her last stay in the local hospital here was that she would whisper in my ear that the persons who were "disguised" as doctors were actually Nazis from the Gestapo, a typical case of paranoia. The war and her two exiles had obviously left a deep imprint on her mind, right up to the end of her life. She adamantly refused to return to Germany on a visit, but my father and I did go to Berlin and managed to see where he had lived as a youth.

I went to the Sorbonne School of Interpretation and Translation and graduated in 1961 with two degrees, one in conference interpretation and one in translation, my languages being English, French and German. Ever since, I have been working as a professional interpreter; I am now semi-retired. For many years I taught at ESIT, the University of Paris School for Interpreters and Translators. I am grateful that my parents spoke German to each other all of their lives and that I was able to pick up the language because of that. My mother spoke French to me for many years during my childhood, so I really had the necessary background for becoming an interpreter.

Looking back on my youth, I now realize that all my friends at Hunter were children of German Jews, or other immigrant parents—Russian, Polish or Italian. I don’t think anyone at Hunter knew that I was born in France except perhaps some girls in my French class. One who did was a girl who spent the war hidden away somewhere in France, and we used to speak about returning there. Aside from the European friends I had at Hunter I was always attracted to Blacks, Indians [from India] and never bona fide Americans.

I felt I was different but couldn’t really explain why. I knew I wanted to "go back" to France, although I was only a small child when we left. And indeed I felt much more at home here than in New York City.

My parents never had any bona fide American friends either; all came from the same background as they did. My parents managed to recreate the same environment they probably would have had in Berlin. I was raised as a typical European child, so different from the "real" Americans: We ate all our meals together, and we went out to museums and the cinema together. I was pretty old before I ever tasted an ice cream soda or a banana split, and as regards fast food, I basically never tasted it. My parents were a very frugal family. It’s true they didn’t have very much, and we were pretty "poor," but probably in the back of their minds they feared they might lose everything again.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for me, I was too young to really be aware of my parents’ double exile and the hardships of trying to get out of occupied France. The little I know I think I just picked up from their conversations. I do remember, however, that the names of various concentration camps came up often, and I think that this is because many of their friends died in these camps. I also remember that during the first years in New York City my parents were very poor and that I sometimes couldn’t go to school because the only pair of shoes I had was soaking wet.

Like all of the survivors of the Holocaust, and we were very lucky as far that was concerned, the subject was never discussed, and so I now regret knowing so little about my parents’ lives and the energy deployed just to manage in a foreign country with a foreign language. All this is lost for future generations!

To conclude on a more pleasant note, the German intelligentsia in New York were many and very active in cultural matters. My parents had lots of friends and acquaintances among the German writers, many of whom were Jewish. They often came to our house for coffee and cake. I also saw many German plays and read many German authors. My father was a freelance journalist working for "Aufbau," a German language newspaper created by German Jewish refugees. He also had a full-time position with another German newspaper called "Staatzeitung und Herald." My parents moved to Washington after my graduation from high school and both became civil servants, my father working at the Congressional Library of Medicine as a subject header, doing summaries of books and articles from various languages he was familiar with in different degrees. My mother worked as an accountant at the Department of Defense.

As we live in the suburbs in a house with a large garden full of fruit trees of all sorts – apricots, peaches, cherries, plums, walnuts, apples, pears – not to mention strawberries, raspberries and black currents, I spend lots of time gardening. During the summer months we move downstairs and eat all our meals outside. Other than that I am a voracious reader, mainly in French and English but sometimes also in German. We are very lucky in that we have a wonderful art cinema, right around the corner from our house, and both my husband and I are avid cinephiles.

Our daughter, Valérie Aimée, has been living in the USA for about 20 years, most of which were spent in New York. She has taught French at various prep schools, one in Washington, DC and the others in New York, except for her most recent job at Green Fields Academy in Connecticut. She has immigrated "backwards" so to speak, going from France to the USA, whereas I went from the USA to France. C’est la vie!

That’s it folks.

- March 2009

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