She is a tiny woman who radiates love and joy. Her life is inspiring and she has thrived in her life, despite early devastation.
On Sunday, May 21, 2023, a ribbon-cutting event with about 60 people attending, honored 97-year-old Bronka Sundstrom with a bench and plaque, “In Honor of Bronka Sundstrom, Holocaust Survivor, Mountaineer & Oldest Mt. Rainier Record Holder.” (The bench is located on the Chehalis Western Trail at the Chambers Lake overlook. To access the site, park at the trail entrance on 37th SE/Herman Rd SE, roughly halfway between the intersections of Herman/Wiggins and 37th/College.)
Lacey’s Mayor Andy Ryder signed a proclamation on behalf of the city. It is paraphrased throughout this article and was read by Deputy Mayor Malcolm Miller. In the end, he proclaimed May 21st as Bronka Sundstrom Day and encouraged community members to honor her strength and bravery for the hardships she has witnessed and endured in her lifetime and to also share in her love of nature and people in our community. The City of Olympia proclaimed May as Jewish American Heritage Month.
Richard Greene, Museum and Technology Director at the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle also spoke, attending with Marcy Bloom, volunteer docent. They presented a piece of art to Bronka. In a recent contest, the Holocaust Center invited students to portray someone they admired. Yasemin Turkoglu, a 12th grader at the Nikola Tesla STEM High School chose Bronka Sundstrom and wrote a moving essay to accompany the image.
The gathering was organized by a good friend, Andrea Lipper, who also emceed the event.
Even now, Bronka lives an exuberant life, cheerfully recollecting her time with her husband on the mountain, including the 20th anniversary of her record-setting climb. Starting from the Paradise entrance, she climbed the 14,411-foot summit of Mt. Rainier in 2002, twice as fast as most people. She was 77 then and was documented as the oldest woman to summit the mountain. She climbed with a guide, as required, but ascended without assistance in an efficient 18-hour round-trip, not even pausing to camp overnight. Her record still stands. At one point her guide said, “We should rest now, Bronka.” She smiled, “Why, are you tired?”
She makes friends of all ages wherever she goes. Also, she has long served as a National Park Service volunteer, helping others in so many ways, always making the day fun and cracking jokes. One man at the ribbon-cutting laughingly reported that she patted him on the shoulder as he rested during a hike, “Keep breathing, you’ll live.” She adores her two grandchildren, Ckloe and Grover. She showed this writer a photo of herself with Grover, as they reached Camp Muir together.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Hall of Fame inducted Bronka Sundstrom into their ranks in 2021, under the category of hiking and mountaineering, along with a woman who walked before her, pioneer Fay Fuller (1869-1958), whose story Bronka knows well. In 1890, 20-year-old (Edwina) Fay Fuller was the first woman known to summit Mount Rainier. Fay was a teacher, and journalist, living in Yelm, WA. Later, Fay repeated the feat and also reached the summit of Mount Hood. Fay was a champion of woman climbers and advocated mountaineering. She wrote about the Mountain and the sport, helping establish several climbing clubs, including the Washington Alpine Club (1891) and the Portland-based Mazamas (1894). Fay Peak, a 6,492 peak, near Mount Rainier and Mowich Lake, is named in her honor.
Also, Bronka has visited Camp Muir countless times. At 10,188’, Camp Muir is a high-altitude collection of shelters, providing 7 of the 12 approaches to the Mt. Rainier summit from Paradise. A fixture and icon at the mountain for decades, along with her husband Åke, it is likely that she has hiked to Camp Muir more often than anyone else, except for a few professional guides. In one year alone, she and Åke hiked to Camp Muir 50 times. He passed away in 2010, a year after falling on the ice outside their home.
Bronka was in seventh grade in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. She and her family endured dreadful living conditions, including abuse, neglect, and hunger for six years. They were first sent to the Jewish ghetto, and then to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where she saw her father walk to the gas chambers, to his death. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 21, 2023, she recalled this tragic memory: He went forward singing the first verse of the Shema, “She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.” It is the quintessential Jewish declaration of faith in God, from the sixth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, translating to, “Hear O' Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” At the ceremony, Rabbi Yosef Schtroks of the Chabad Jewish Center of Olympia honored Bronka and spoke words of comfort and inspiration. He said, “I am certain that he is smiling down on you now.”
After Auschwitz, Bronka was imprisoned at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where overcrowding, lack of food, and poor sanitary conditions, caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Over 35,000 people died in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation. When British soldiers arrived, Bronka had nearly starved to death. She and one sister were the only survivors of their family. Their mother, their father, siblings, and other relatives had perished.
The Red Cross took her to Sweden for recovery and there she met a Swedish citizen and her future husband, Åke Sundstrom. She credits him with teaching her everything from cooking to riding a bike, driving a car, and even how to ski. He made her first pair of downhill skis by hand.
For safety, they emigrated to the United States in 1948, settled in Tacoma, WA, had their son Allen, and enjoyed a wonderful life. They loved exploring the trails of Mt. Rainier and eventually retired to their weekend place on the Nisqually River, at the western edge of Mount Rainier National Park, near Ashford. Åke built the Scandinavian-style home with meticulous craftsmanship. They loved living near the mountain and were living legends on the trails - known to be the oldest climbers of Mt. Rainier. Bronka loves all the outdoors and believes that “the mountains teach us of independence, strength, confidence, and beauty.”
Now, she lives at Panorama and walks almost daily on the Western Chehalis Trail, converted from the old railroad tracks in and around Thurston County. She enjoys greeting those who slow down to meet her and treats them with love and as family. She is happy to share stories about Mt. Rainier, hiking, and the importance of keeping one’s self physically fit as we age.
Shirley Stirling, of Lacey, writes about good things people in Thurston County are doing. If you’d like to nominate someone to be profiled, contact her at shirley@theJOLTnews.com or comment below.
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