A View from Glen Hill: When the worst brings out the best

If you weren’t able to attend the third session of the Interfaith Series held on March 24 at Wilton Library, you owe it to yourself to view the video on the library’s website: wiltonlibrary.org. You’ll see there an absolutely extraordinary presentation by Mrs. Judith Altmann and Dr. Kareem Adeeb. Though from very different worlds, the life of each has intersected dramatically with evil and violence. Having survived the worst, they speak out for civility and compassion with great credibility as well as with enormous power.
Mrs. Altmann was only a teenager when the Holocaust engulfed her and her family. The memory of it is searing, yet Mrs. Altmann doesn’t shrink from describing her experience of unremitting deprivation and terror to audiences in schools and universities and at faith institutions around our country and also abroad. She has been honored repeatedly for her work as she puts her horrible Holocaust experiences into a contex not of bitterness, though she lost two dozen family members, but of the example they present so forcefully of the need for every one of us, from young children to senior citizens, to be alert to intervene in the face of words or actions that hurt others so that compassion triumphs over evil in all that we do.
Mrs. Altmann grew up in Czechoslovakia’s beautiful Carpathian Mountains near the border with Ukraine and Poland. That rustic beauty was in stark contrast to her family’s brutal cattle-car delivery to Auschwitz/Birkenau. As she stood with her parents in Mengele’s long line of those consigned to immediate gassing, her father gave her a special blessing: “Judith, you will live; I love you” right before Mengele himself tore her away and thrust her into the line of those who would survive, though for most only briefly. Her fluency in seven languages saved her life because she was needed for construction gangs of hundreds of slave laborers drawn from all over Eastern Europe to be the one who, in addition to doing hard labor, could communicate what needed to be done.
Dr. Kareem Adeeb is a kindred spirit with Mrs. Altmann both in background experiences of searing violence and in a rich and full view of life. He is the spiritual leader of the American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies in Wilton and board president of the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut. Born in Lebanon, but with a doctorate in engineering earned in America, he became the founding dean of the engineering school of the University of Lebanon.
Terrorists, however, didn’t like the fact that he accepted students on a nondiscriminatory basis, regardless of their faith or ethnicity. Numerous threats were followed by an explosion that destroyed his car, and a high-powered bullet shot through his office window, where he had been standing only seconds before. With an AK-47 held at his head with the final warning that if he didn’t sign the university resignation letter thrust at him by the other four gunmen who had invaded his home he would be shot, he signed. His young children, observing this, had nightmares, and his mother suffered a heart attack. She told him to get out of the country, and he did. Now a successful engineering consultant, he is also a highly respected and deeply valued leader in his own faith community as well as more widely, and he is well-known for his participation in interfaith Christian, Jewish and Muslim services here in Wilton for more than a decade now.
Dr. Adeeb’s and Mrs. Altmann’s experiences since those wretched times have been rich ones, raising children and now enjoying grandchildren as well and doing much public speaking. When each speaks, whether with young people or adults, you can hear a pin drop. When asked by a Wilton youth, “Don’t you hate the Nazis for what they did to you and your family?” Mrs. Altmann replied, “Hatred does me and everyone else no good. What I need to do is to be sure you know what happened and to help you to understand never to turn away from those who need your care and support.”
When asked why we don’t hear more people speaking, as they both do so well, in interfaith dialogue that encourages civility and compassion, Dr. Adeeb answered, “It’s happening all the time, but that kind of story doesn’t sell newspapers or get cable news viewers.” And that is terribly sad, because a dialogue like this one is something that none of those privileged to hear it is likely ever to forget.

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.