'And Then the Nazis Told Me, You’re Going to Palestine'

How Mali Bruckenthal and her children escaped the Nazis’ clutches

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The marvelous story of Mali Bruckenthal, who was born in 1914 in Munich and died in July at Kibbutz Hafetz Haim at the age of 103, is contained in testimony that she gave to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, in 2002. Her testimony, which also appears in a book published in 2008 by her family, reveal an extraordinary woman – resourceful, courageous, determined and faith-driven.

Amalia (Mali) Landau, was born in 1914 in Munich into a religiously observant family. She immigrated to Palestine in 1935 and settled in Tel Aviv. The following year, she married Rabbi Hillel Bruckenthal, who had immigrated from Poland. The couple moved to the youth training farm, in Kfar Sava, of the ultra-Orthodox Poalei Agudat Yisrael movement, whose members were later among the founders of Kibbutz Hafetz Haim, east of Ashdod.

A few months later, they returned to Europe as envoys of the Zionist movement. They were sent to the city of Enschede, in Holland, where they ran an agricultural training center for young refugees from Germany who were waiting for British-issued immigration certificates for Palestine. The couple’s first three children, all of them sons, were born in Enschede.

In 1940, immediately after the Germans invaded Holland, Hillel was arrested by the S.S. Initially he was incarcerated in a detention camp in Holland. Mali did the unthinkable, and went to meet with the country’s Nazi governor in order to demand her husband’s release. “He didn’t think I was Jewish – a Jewish woman doesn’t allow herself to enter the lion’s den,” she said in her testimony. She afterward explained that she brought her chutzpah from the Land of Israel, where she was already a proud pioneer.

Bruckenthal and her three oldest sons. They were on the list of privileged prisoners who were 'exchange candidates.' Credit: The Bruckenthal family

Subsequently she actually reached the camp in which her husband was imprisoned and, amid a confrontation with S.S. personnel, was able to meet with him although she could not secure his release. Hillel was then sent to Germany. Now they could communicate only by letters, which he sent her through the Red Cross. In one such letter he wrote that she should visit her aunt “Hester” (the Dutch name for “Esther”; the word means “hide” in Hebrew). In other words, he was hinting to her that she should go into hiding.

Mali remained nearby with her three sons and about 70 young aspiring pioneers, for whom she was responsible. She went on managing the center for two-and-a-half years under the Nazi regime. In September 1942, she was sent with her sons to the Westerbork camp, a departure point for transports to the death camps. On the way to Westerbork, during a stop made by the train, she somehow connived to get off with the children and ensconce herself in a local café, under the Nazis’ eyes. In fact, she says in her testimony, the children later played with Nazi officers on the train.

She did not fully take in her situation until she reached the camp and was herded with the children onto a truck. “Darkness, you can’t see a thing. I search for my children’s heads, and say: Hold onto my skirt so we will stay together,” she related. A month later, she and the children were placed on the list of privileged prisoners who were “exchange candidates”: Because she was a citizen of the British Mandate administration in Palestine, the Nazis wanted to exchange her and others with a similar status for German citizens who had been arrested by the British, in particular women from the German Templer sect who lived in Palestine.

“I didn’t believe it when they told me I was going to the Land of Israel with the children,” she recounted in her testimony. “When someone from Westerbork goes to a place other than Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen – it just couldn’t be,” Mali said. It was, she suggested, like someone being notified that tomorrow he was flying to the moon.

The next stop was Vienna, the center for transports of the so-called exchange people from Europe. While they waited for the train that would take them on the next leg of their journey, Mali went into an empty café in the Austrian capital and struck up a conversation with the saleswoman. “The café was always full of Jews. One of them wrote all the time, maybe a book, another made music, and there were merchants who had meetings. And now there are no Jews in Vienna. Who will come to me?” she recalled the saleswoman saying to her. To which Mali said, in rebuttal, “You are to blame, you wanted to go together with the Germans.”

Mali Bruckenthal.Credit: The Bruckenthal family

From there she and her sons were taken by train to Istanbul, where the exchange itself took place under the auspices of the Red Cross. Then, under British supervision, the transport proceeded to Palestine via Turkey and Syria. In the leg between Turkey and Aleppo, Amalia and the other exchange people traveled on a luxury train. “There were even night beds for everyone. Everyone received such and such portions of wine People who had already been in the ghetto for years and had not eaten, attacked the food,” she related.

Once back in Palestine, Mali Bruckenthal was among the founders of Kibbutz Hafetz Haim, and after the war, was reunited with her husband, who returned from a German POW camp in July 1945. “He looked awfully bad, but never mind, he was alive,” she recounted. The couple had six more children in the kibbutz, where Hillel was appointed the rabbi and school principal. Mali was the housemother of the guest house.

Hillel died in 1980. Amalia is survived by eight children (one of her children died three years ago), 47 grandchildren, 146 great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren.

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