Brunhilda, who died in 1919

Kurt and his mother, Fanny Stern

My dad, Kurt Stern, had a sister, Brunhilda, who died from the flu virus in 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic. That virus infected 500 million people, 27% of all people on earth, and killed between 50 and 100 million. Let’s say 75 million. The flu pandemic was, as they used to say, an “act of God”. What can one do about a bug, a virus?

Brunhilda was, or would have been, my aunt. She was born in Rodheim, Germany. She had a brother Erich who died in 1928, aged nine, of appendicitis. That left my Dad and his two brothers who survived childhood, and all died in Africa. They journeyed to a new land, 13 000 kilometres from where they were born, and far from Adolf Hitler and his eager accomplices. Their parents followed, leaving two children buried in Germany’s soil. Hitler’s war claimed about 75 million lives. Some of my dad’s relatives and classmates were gassed and incinerated in Poland, where they were taken by rail boxcars. This was not really an ‘act of God’. It was an act of people infatuated by the notion that some humans, by their very existence, polluted the planet, and needed to be exterminated.  Like a bug, or a virus.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1920 was exacerbated by World War 1, but it reached remote places such as isolated Pacific islands and the Arctic. In Iran about 15% of the entire population died. Western Samoa had about 25% of the population dying — amongst men it was one man in three. In New Caledonia not even one person died, because quarantine measures worked so well. 12 000 people died in Australia. You can see on an atlas that Western Samoa and New Caledonia and Australia are all (relatively) close to each other. They had different outcomes in terms of the Spanish Flu.

My aunt Brunhilda has been on my mind lately. She was two years old when she died in February 1919. Her name is a particularly strong one in German and Norse tradition. Yet, at two years old, weakened no doubt by the illness, she succumbed to the flu pandemic that swept the world 100 years ago.

By Gilad Stern

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