Visitors to the Middlebrook Middle School auditorium can’t help but pass by one of the Rotary Club’s Peace Poles, which proclaims May Peace Prevail on Earth.
That message would not be lost on the 200 or so people who spent nearly two hours with Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann on June 11.
Altmann, who is vice president of the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut, frequently tells her story of how she survived the Nazi concentration camps at schools. Since September, she has spoken at 58 schools, she told The Bulletin. Her visit was arranged through the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains, N.Y.
She reminded her audience she is one of the few survivors of the Holocaust still living, able to bear eye witness to the horrors that befell the Jews, gypsies, and others whom Hitler despised.
She began her program with a film entitled Judith Altmann’s Story of Freedom. Compiled of historic photos, it told of the fate of Jews who lived under Nazi occupation, from being forced to move into ghettos, wearing a star of David as identification, being crammed into cattle cars and taken to labor or extermination camps, being stripped of everything from hair to shoes, living in over-crowded barracks, burying bodies of their fellow prisoners, and embarking on a death march. There were photos of rooms full of hairbrushes, eyeglasses, shoes and gas canisters.
Altmann was born 93 years ago in Czechoslovakia, which she described as “a wonderful country with no discrimination. All that changed in 1939 as Hitler came to power.
“Every man was sent to slave labor. Children could not go to school. They confiscated our businesses. We were called subhuman,” she said. “One day you have freedom, then you have nothing.”
In a family of six children, only a few survived. She told of her older sister Charlotte, married to a Polish man and the mother of two children, 3 and 7 years old. After the invasion of Poland, she said, the Jews were forced to live in ghettos.
“In the beginning, what they did, they gathered those Jews and they had a certain quota of how many people they are going to kill a day,” she said. “They gathered groups and took them out of town, made them dig their own graves, made them get undressed to utilize the last piece of clothing, shot the children first, the husbands later, and then the mother.
“Unfortunately, my sister Charlotte was one of the victims. She lived in a small town of 15,000 inhabitants, out of that 5,000 Jewish people.
“How do we know about it? As long as we were home in our part of Czechoslovakia they did not put us into a ghetto. We were still able to live in our homes. But as long as we were still home and our mother was able to save up some food, we hired a peasant to bring the food to my sister. One day he came back, he said he regrets very much he could not deliver the food to Charlotte but he witnessed her execution.”
One brother, who lived with his wife in Belgium, managed to escape to England to join the Czech army. His wife made it to southern France where she was hidden by a gentile family. Another brother made it to the U.S. in 1939.
Altmann had the opportunity to flee to England with other children from Czechoslovakia and Poland. “My father said, ‘Judy go, it will save your life.’ But I did not want to leave my parents alone,” she said.
Then, in April 1944, one day after Passover, at 6:30 in the morning, police and SS men came and told them “take all your money and all your jewels and come with enough food for a day.
“My father is a very religious man, he takes his prayer book and his prayer shawl. My mother didn’t want to go. She said, ‘I don’t want them to kill me, I’m going to kill myself.’ I said, ‘Mommy, you always have time to die.’
“I took my manicure set that was my last birthday present and we started marching.”
After a week living outdoors in a cemetery and then six weeks in a ghetto where 32 families were crammed into one house, they went to the railroad.
“This time we were put into cattle cars, 65 to 75 people in one car. … They gave us an empty bowl to use as a bathroom and one with water and they closed us in with an iron bar.
“It was the longest four and a half days. The first night a man dies. What do we do with the body? Put him in the corner. What corner? There was no corner. Women were giving birth, children were screaming …people were going berserk and they started to scream and the SS said ‘if that doesn’t stop we will take all of you out and shoot you on the spot.’”
Their hellish journey ended at Auschwitz, where she would see her remaining family members, save one, for the last time.
“Out comes this very tall man with the shining boots and immaculate uniform. This is Dr. Josef Mengele. … He came to our row, he pointed to my niece to go to the left, to me to go to the left and the rest of us are marching to the right. As I passed my father’s row he put his hand on my head as he did every Friday night to bless us. He said, ‘Judy, you will live.’ These are the last words I heard from my father,” she recounted with sadness in her voice.
“Twenty-four members of my family were killed. We walked to the left and they walked to their death.”
Altmann and her niece spent six weeks at Auschwitz and were then taken to a slave labor camp in West Germany where 1,000 worked in an ammunition factory and 1,000 worked outside doing hard labor.
“You couldn’t be sick more than two days, otherwise you were taken away and never seen again,” she said. Unfortunately for Altmann, while working in a factory she broke her wrist. Fearing she would be taken back to Auschwitz, she said good-bye to her niece.
But Altmann had skills beyond her work at hard labor. She has a facility for languages and as a youngster she learned to speak not only Czechoslovakian but Russian, which was compulsory in school, Hungarian, English, Polish from visiting her sister, German from a teacher who lived in their house, and Yiddish.
“An SS woman named Erika — she called me ‘little one’ — she takes me in her little car to a hospital.” They put a cast on and on the way back from the hospital she stopped and asked the foreman for a letter.
“She said, ‘I need this girl. She speaks many languages and the work has to be done in the Russian, and Czech, and Polish and Yiddish, whatever language, she tells them what to do because they do not speak German. … I was saved.”
Her salvation led only to more horrors as she and her niece were forced on a death march to Bergen Belsen concentration camp where Anne Frank had died three weeks earlier.
“We had to walk three weeks, very emaciated, hungry, no shoes. Terribly, terribly hungry, but what was the worst? People were dying,” she said. “It was literally a death march in all ways.”
Conditions at the camp were beyond description. “The hunger was unbelievable.” To earn a bowl of soup, they carried the bodies of those who had died. Finally they saw “soldiers in a different uniform” as the British liberated the camp.
Eventually, Altmann left for Sweden, her niece went back to Czechoslovakia but eventually immigrated to Israel. Her niece married, had two children, several grandchildren and died two years ago at the age of 91.
Altmann immigrated to the U.S, married a man from Austria, and had two sons.
“I made a pledge, if I ever survive I will talk to young people and tell them what freedom means,” she said to the students in the audience. “If you see anything, in your school, in your playground, anywhere, stand up for a person. If you see anybody picking on another person, ask why, be informed what’s happening because you are our future. You will create a better world, I am sure of that.”