Lessons from Hilde, who fled Nazi Germany for a better life

Here’s a few things my great-aunt would have liked you to know.

My great-aunt Hilde Bruell, an Austrian Jew who escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany, danced as a prima ballerina across European opera houses, and built her own home and businesses in Oakland, California, died Nov. 21, 2022, at the age of 106. She passed peacefully in the excellent care of her senior living center and hospice caregivers in Oakland.

Hilde lived a childhood of privilege and high expectations in Austria, practicing ballet as a girl until her feet were bloody. That life came to an end when the Nazis took power. Like many Jewish families, Hilde and her family lost everything and were forced to flee to survive.

She went to London, then New York, then Oakland, where she built her home and several successful business ventures with her longtime companion David Fyne. Over her life, she took pride and joy in being a union leader, a ballet instructor and a citizen of the United States.

In a column published after her birthday in July, I implored readers to value their time with their elders, and now that Hilde’s gone, that lesson feels even truer.

She was, after all, part of a shrinking club: In only a few more decades, all the immediate survivors of the Holocaust will have passed away.

Many historians, journalists, researchers and museums will continue to document what happened to those people, and one day, their critical work will be all that remains of that era. But something important is lost when the people who were there – good and bad – have all died.

We can reconstruct their actions and motivations, but we can’t ask them clarifying questions. We can’t interrogate their mistruths. And we can apologize for not being better listeners, we can ask to hear stories that we tuned out the first time, but we will only hear silence in return.

Quite literally, it is like investigating a crime scene after the suspects, victims and witnesses have all left: All that remains is the blood on the wall, the fingerprints on the counter, and the bullet casings all over the floor, like ghosts of memories.

And even those ghosts – good God, they make me feel like crumpling at my desk.

There was, for example, the motorcyclist who gave 22-year-old Hilde an urgent ride one morning to the English consulate in Vienna, where Hilde would get the documentation she needed to leave Austria. Hilde told the motorcyclist honestly that she was secretly a Jew fleeing the country – even though she’d already seen the swastika on his armband.

“Hop in,” he responded, promising he would not reveal her secret, though they both knew he could be killed for harboring a Jew.

Eighty years later, she still remembered him. “He was my angel,” Hilde told me.

What do I make of this man who saved my Hilde, all while wearing the symbols of her oppression – was he perhaps a clandestine rebel against Hitler, or merely a footsoldier who felt a momentary tug of guilt or compassion? I would have loved to have interviewed him and found out.

Bur rather than dwell on what could have been, let’s talk about what Hilde wanted the world to know — the things that lit up her eyes and made her sit up in bed even when she was tired:

1. “Family is the most important thing.”

2. It’s OK to be nervous. When Hilde went on stage to perform an imitation of Charlie Chaplin for the King and Queen of England, she was nervous. But “if an artist is not nervous before her or his appearance, it’s no good. You’ve got to be nervous,” she said.

3. Be grateful for the chance to do something with your life. Take pride in your work and don’t be lazy. And make sure you’re paid well for that work.

4. Dance. Take a walk every day. Make friends who live near you.

5. Tell the truth.

6. When selecting a partner, find someone “warm, friendly, loving and caring.” Marry them and raise children, if you’re so inclined.

7. Do not become complacent in the fight against evil. The hatred that fueled Hitler’s forces of racism, fascism and bigotry could flame up again.

8. Dream of a day when our world treats people of all races and cultures equally. Then do your part to make that dream a little more real.

And here’s something I’d like you to know: Cherish your elderly family members, because if you’re lucky, you’ll be like them one day.

Listen to and record their stories. Take lots of pictures. Help them lead healthy, busy lives — with plenty of knishes and chocolates snuck in, too.

I’ll conclude by quoting a couple of passages from “Ancestress,” a tribute by Icelandic musician Björk to her late mother Hildur.

Released in late September as part of Björk’s album Fossora, the song has helped me process my own great-aunt’s death.

“My ancestress’ clock is ticking

Her once vibrant rebellion is fading

I am her hopekeeper

I assure hope is there

At all times …

By now, we share the same flesh

As much as I tried to escape it

This is no mediocre debris

My ancestress.”