Survivor pens story of escape, struggles

Born in 1933 Poland, Marie Brandstetter spent 10 years of her youth dodging the Nazis, the Russian NKVD (secret service), who captured and sent her and her family to freeze in Siberia, and the British Navy. The British chased the Jewish immigrant ship she was on, the Exodus, as it attempted to land in Palestine.

Finally in 1948, after a decade of running and hiding, starving and freezing, she and her younger brother settled into a displaced children's camp in Bad Aibling, Germany.

She stifled the memories of those harsh times, when her name was Mania Zelwer, for more than 40 years. During that time, she settled in Burlingame, married Newell Brandstetter (who recently passed away), raised four children and eventually had nine grandchildren.

Until a few years ago, she and her husband ran a shoe store in Millbrae. A quiet life, in marked contrast to that of her childhood. But maybe that's because she couldn't remember much of her childhood.

Then about three years ago, the tension created by her husband's imminent death brought forgotten memories bubbling from the depths of her consciousness. The release of tension was astonishing. With the encouragement of a psychologist and a counselor from Bad Aibling, now living in San Francisco, Brandstetter compiled her childhood memories into a book, "Mania's Angel: My Life Story," which she self-published and self-distributed.

"The tension of those early years certainly took their toll," said Kathleen Burgy, a member of the American Friend's Service Committee, a Quaker group that counseled the displaced children at Bad Aibling. "In 1948, when I first saw Marie and her brother, Sam, I thought she was the little boy's mother, instead of his sister. She looked old beyond her years. Now, since writing her book, she seems 10 years younger."

Brandstetter's book tells the story of a Jewish family that managed to stay on the run, escaping the concentration camps throughout the war. She tells stories of staying in a Polish hotel that was filled with Gestapo agents. She talks about the fear that gripped her when a Gestapo officer offered the children candy, after she had just heard many stories about the Germans dropping poisoned candy in Poland. The officer looked angry and wouldn't leave until the children ate the candy in front of him. She also tells about a Gestapo officer cleaning her brother's bandaged wound on the train to Warsaw as they headed toward the Russian border to escape the Germans.

She titled her book "Mania's Angel" because she feels that a special angel must have protected her and her family from so many close calls.

Brandstetter wanted to leave a legacy for her own children and grandchildren. "The stories seem so unbelievable that when my granddaughter, Jennifer, used them to write a book report, the teacher told her to bring the actual book to the class, to prove she didn't make up what she said about her grandmother's life story," she said.

Today she believes she followed a destiny that was mapped out for her. And while she would have preferred to have had a more normal childhood, she has an important message to pass on: one of gratitude for surviving.

"As I think back on those times, I realize one should never take anything in life for granted," she said. "I believe that to live free in the best country in the world, we first had to endure what we did."