Bronka Sundstrom, Holocaust survivor and avid hiker, dies at 98
The Seattle Times November 30, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Polish-born Holocaust survivor Bronka Sundstrom — who outlasted Nazi concentration camps and later settled in Tacoma and Ashford, becoming a hiking folk hero at Mount Rainer National Park — died Wednesday in Lacey from congestive heart failure, according to multiple friends. She was 98.
In 2002, Sundstrom became the oldest woman to climb Mount Rainier, making the round-trip trek in just under 19 hours at age 77. The mark stood until this past summer. Her endurance feat punctuated decades of inveterate hiking, much of it with her husband, Ake Sundstrom, whom she met in Sweden as a refugee after World War II. He died in 2010.
The Sundstroms were fixtures at Mount Rainier, well known to rangers and hikers. After her Rainier climb, Sundstrom became a local mountain celebrity. Hikers regularly asked to have their picture taken with her on the trail.
As recently as a month ago, Sundstrom walked 5 miles daily outside her home in the Panorama retirement community on the Chehalis Western Trail, where a bench was dedicated in her honor in May. These daily strolls were more than just an impressive fitness regimen for a nonagenarian who never sat still. Sundstrom’s close friends believe her constant motion was also an unconscious effort to flee her inner demons.
“One of the reasons she hiked so much was because it helped to soothe the trauma that she had experienced,” said mountain guide Jason Edwards of University Place, who led her 2002 climb.
Sundstrom opened up about her wartime experience late in life as she sought to establish a legacy as a Holocaust survivor. Nearly her entire family — both parents and six siblings — were killed in Nazi death camps. A brother died in the Polish army and a sister fled to Russia but died of disease. In 2020, she gave video testimony to Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity, describing her internment in the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. It can be viewed at holocaustcenterseattle.org/bronka-sundstrom-poland.
Jane Habegger of Olympia became a close friend and caregiver late in life, helping Sundstrom complete paperwork for her annual reparations payment from the German government, among other tasks. Bronka once showed Habegger the numbered metal tag she was forced to wear in the camp. (She was not tattooed, like many Holocaust victims.) “They made me wear this like a dog,” Habegger recalled Sundstrom saying in tears.
“She is worried people will not remember the Holocaust,” Habegger said. “She doesn’t want to talk about it, and yet she can’t help it.”
From Auschwitz to Paradise
Bronka Czyzyk was born Aug. 15, 1925, to a Yiddish-speaking religious family in Sandomierz, Poland. Antisemitism had deep roots there: The town was infamous for accusing 17th — and 18th-century Jews of ritually murdering Christians.
The youngest in her family, Bronka was 13 years old when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. The family was confined to the Lodz ghetto and then sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi death camp where an estimated 1.1 million people, 1 million of them Jews, were murdered.
She was deprived of food and water, poorly clothed and forced to do hard labor. “Every day that you lived, you thought was going to be your last day,” she told the Holocaust Center. “Your strength kept you going.”
Sundstrom described how she saw her father enter a gas chamber while chanting a Hebrew prayer known as the Shema. The image haunted her for the rest of her life.
“Day and night if I’m awake, I see him going,” she told Jewish in Seattle magazine in 2020. “You never get it out of your mind.”
In January 1945, the Nazis liquidated the Auschwitz camp ahead of the approaching Soviet army and force-marched tens of thousands of prisoners elsewhere, including Sundstrom, who eventually arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. British forces liberated the camp on April 15, 1945. Bronka was near death, weighing just 50 pounds, and fell unconscious.
The Red Cross transported her to Sweden, which took in some 10,000 Jewish refugees after the war.
“When I woke up, I thought I was in heaven,” she told Jewish in Seattle. “Someone told me that I was safe and there was no more war. I thought I was dead.”
Swedes visited the refugees while they convalesced, including a young architect with a penchant for ski jumping named Ake Sundstrom. He took such a liking to Bronka that he broke off an engagement and proposed to her instead. They married in 1947, but as the evolving Cold War threatened another military conflict, Bronka could not countenance settling down in Europe. Two years later they moved to Tacoma, where Ake had relatives among the region’s thriving Nordic community, and found work in construction.
Ake taught Bronka the basics of hiking, skiing and snowshoeing, and together they spent their free time in Washington’s mountains. They had a particular love of the Paradise area at Mount Rainier. In 1954, they had a son, Allen, who died of cancer in 2013.
Bronka and Ake retired in 1980 to a Scandinavian-style cabin they built in Ashford, which allowed them to make near-daily trips into the national park, where they served as volunteer rangers.
“Every day was a holiday,” she told Jewish in Seattle, recalling those years.
Lady of the mountain
Camp Muir was a particular draw. The high camp at 10,188 feet serves as the jumping-off point for Mount Rainier summit attempts via the mountain’s standard route. The Sundstroms would make the climb repeatedly every summer, one year notching 50 hikes up to Camp Muir.
Their regular presence on the Muir Snowfield made them well known to Rainier guides like Edwards, who has climbed the mountain over 300 times, mostly with Ashford-based outfit International Mountain Guides. He and Bronka bonded over a shared history — his father spent 14 months in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. In the late 1990s, he began asking Bronka if she would like to climb Rainier. She always said no.
In 2002, Sundstrom unexpectedly said yes — but she refused to spend the night at Camp Muir. The spartan climbers’ shelter, with its wooden bunkbeds, reminded her of concentration camp barracks. Edwards said they would climb in a single push, then, while some guided trips take three days.
“No problem,” Edwards recalled her saying. “I can do that.”
Edwards recruited fellow guide Ryan Stephens and secured donated equipment and clothing from guiding outfit RMI Expeditions. The trio made two attempts, turned around each time by weather, before a third attempt that began on Aug. 31, two weeks after Sundstrom’s 77th birthday.
The hardest part was convincing Sundstrom to maintain a steady pace on the way to Camp Muir — not because of fatigue, but because she stopped to chat with everyone along the way.
Otherwise, they kept up a fast clip, at times outpacing guided groups. Edwards would ask, “Excuse me, do you mind if we pass? My grandmother wants to come through.” The ruse amused Bronka. “That put more energy into her step to pass all these young guys,” he said.
Sundstrom’s feat became regional news and led to an avalanche of sponsorship requests. She largely sidestepped her newfound publicity — on one occasion, she allegedly slipped out the back door to avoid television news vans in order to go hiking — though she was always gracious about trailside photo requests.
Edwards took her on one last summit attempt when she was 79, but they turned back when they encountered climbers who had fallen into a crevasse. In 2015, Outdoor Research released a film about Sundstrom’s relationship to Rainier, “Lady of the Mountain,” and the next year, at age 91, she hiked to Camp Muir for the final time. In 2021, Sundstrom was inducted into the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Hall of Fame.
Monday, 9:30 a.m., Bronka’s house.
For years, those were the meetup coordinates for the Happy Wanderers, a women’s weekly hiking club that’s been trekking for three decades. While Sundstrom was usually the oldest hiker by at least 10 years, she was often the strongest — at 4 feet, 8 inches and 87 pounds.
“Nothing held her back,” said Graham resident Carol Wright, the club’s leader. “She didn’t seem to slow down.”
Wright described her as a social hiker, always willing to engage in trail conversation, who remained remarkably nonjudgmental about the world despite the horrors she had experienced.
Friend and club member Rose Vanderhoof met Sundstrom soon after moving to Ashford 14 years ago. Although 20 years younger, Vanderhoof struggled to keep up.
“I was huffing and puffing,” Vanderhoof said, “and she was talking practically all the way up to Camp Muir.”
Sundstrom’s favorite trail lunch was a peanut butter sandwich with apple slices. But she wasn’t really one for snacks, or even water. Holocaust deprivation had permanently altered her physiology. She would nibble on dates, or suck on a lemon cough drop to slake her thirst. On her Rainier climb, she barely drank water.
“She taught me a lot about endurance,” said Vanderhoof, 78, who this year became the oldest woman to reach the summit of Mount Rainier after a four-day climb.
Beyond Camp Muir, Sundstrom also loved the Tatoosh Range. She explored new trails well into her golden years, hiking to Faraway Rock for the first time earlier this decade. She celebrated her 95th birthday with a hike to Second Burroughs near Sunrise.
While Sundstrom’s near-death experience permanently altered her body and mind, the Olympic and Cascade mountains provided therapeutic relief.
“If it weren’t for the mountains, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” she told the Holocaust Center. “The mountains teach us of independence, strength, confidence and beauty.”
Before moving into Panorama, Sundstrom lived in Lacey with a companion, Wally Music, who died in 2022. She is survived by two grandchildren, Grover and Chloe Sundstrom, and her daughter-in-law, Robin Preisler. The Happy Wanderers, many of whom visited Sundstrom in her final days, continue to hike.
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