A graduate of The New School For Social Research, he was Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at City College, where he taught Soviet studies and comparative politics.
He was the author or editor of over sixty books and numerous articles, including “The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary,” “The Holocaust in Hungary: Sixty Years Later” and “The Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary.”
“His long life, his works, and his memory are a blessing for the Jewish people and the whole world, and that gives me strength and is a mark of joy,” said his son, Robert Braham. “My father often, literally on his deathbed, forbade mourning and asked that we go home from the cemetery and have drinks and good times.”
He said his father wanted current and future generations “to have knowledge” of the Holocaust.
“He was so sad about the murder of so many people, not just of the Jews,” Braham said. “Until his work ‘The Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: A Documentary Account’ was published in 1963, there was just nothing published on the Holocaust in Hungary.”
Th elder Braham was a founding board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s academic committee and founder of The Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies at the Graduate Center. In 1998, he narrated “The Last Days,” an Academy Award-winning documentary directed by James Moll.
In 2011, Braham was the recipient of Hungary’s highest “Order of Merit” and honored in Budapest, where the Holocaust Memorial Center library featured his name.
But he considered the museum a government attempt to whitewash and revise the role of Hungary’s autocratic leader and Hitler ally, Miklos Horthy, and requested the removal of his name.
“Never once in any of his published writings, until his 2014 open letter to the Hungarian community rejecting and returning his honors from the Hungarian government, has he related that he was a survivor,” his son said.
“As a survivor whose parents and many family members were among the hundreds of thousands of murdered Jews, I cannot remain silent,” his father wrote. “It was my destiny to work on the preservation of the historical record of the Holocaust.”
R.L. Braham's longtime partner, Mary Maudsley, teaches in the Holocaust and Genocide program at Stockton University.
“He was absolutely charming and modest, especially considering that he is the world’s leading authority on the Holocaust in Hungary,” she said. “When we went to Hungary and Romania last year, it was like traveling with a rock star. Everywhere he went, there were TV cameras and people begging for interviews. He gave two lectures that were standing-room only.”
Braham was raised by his parents Eszter Katz and Lajos Ábrahám in Dej, a small Hungarian town in Transylvania (today’s Romania), but was significantly impoverished.
“They had to move into a cellar with dirt floors next to a creek, so when it rose, the floor became wet mud,” Maudsley said. “With no electricity or running water, he read by candlelight. He read French literature in French and knew eight languages.
“In 1940, Jews were barred from attending school in Hungary,” she added. “There was a private Jewish academy, which his parents could not afford, so he enrolled as an independent student, read everything for the curriculum and passed the exam.”
When he entered the Jewish labor service of the Hungarian army from 1943 to 1945, he was sent to Ukraine, where 40 percent of the labor service people died in slave labor units.
“He locked eyes with people from his hometown and they escaped and hid in a barn under the hay until a farmer used a pitchfork,” she said. “The farmer said ‘Don’t worry boys.’ He arranged for a pale of potatoes every morning.”
Braham further explained his father’s escape west.
“In the Hungarian village of Nyiri, he and four others were rescued from the Hungarian gendarmerie by the Christian farmer István Novák, who was later honored by the State of Israel as a Righteous Among the Nations,” he said.
When the elder Braham was in Berlin, he became a U.S. Army translator, and in 1948 he emigrated to the U.S. Much of his family perished in Auschwitz, including his parents.
“When he was in a slave battalion, he got a card signed by his aunt from the fictional place Waldsee saying, ‘we are doing well and have been sent here,’” his son said. “The Germans made every person before placing them in the gas chambers sign that and send to their relatives to make them less anxious or less aware.”
Braham's aunt actually survived Auschwitz.
In Forest Hills Gardens, Braham lived with his wife, Holocaust survivor Elizabeth Sommer, prior to her passing in 2014. In recent years, Maudsley would visit him at least twice a week and eat at local restaurants like T-Bone Diner and Michael’s Bagels.
When he was not building upon his scholarly pursuits, he would enjoy simple pleasures such as gardening and errands.
“He had a carpentry workshop in his basement and built almost all the furniture in the house and designed wooden sculptures,” his son said.