View from Glen Hill: Shining a light through the darkness

At this time when we all seek to move beyond deeply hurtful symbols and hateful words, Middlebrook School recently hosted two very important programs within two days of each other. The first addressed some of the very worst that has happened in the world: the Holocaust. The second featured empowered Middlebrook students doing good in the face of the darkness of world hunger, striving to make things better.

The first of these programs was presented by Stamford resident Judith Altmann, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor taken by the Nazis at 14 — the same age as a number of the youth in her audience. She has been honored around the world for her work in recounting her experiences to audiences of all ages, with special focus on young people.

She begins with the ever-tightening knot of Nazi oppression: laws forbidding Jews from participating in ordinary civic life, then expanded to laws taking away their homes, then forced removal to ghettos, then loading onto cattle cars jammed so full as to leave standing room only without food or water for days.

Her story moves on to her arrival at Auschwitz itself: off-loading from those cattle cars and examination by the notorious Dr. Mengele himself. Violent separation from her father, a deeply religious man who embraces her head with his hands and blesses her saying, “You will survive,” before he is dragged to the other line. Learning from the long-term concentration camp inmates that her father was in the extermination line and that the fine ash seeping everywhere includes his remains. The required nudity while heads are shaved, girls as well as boys. The coarse clothes, one layer only, even in the dead of winter.

Her story moves on: Her forced-march removal to a work concentration camp instead of a death camp. The discovery that her knowledge of a half-dozen European languages makes her a very valuable prisoner, the only one through whom guards can communicate work orders to all prisoners. The extra duty of moving dead and bloated bodies for which she volunteers in order to earn a bowl of soup to share with her close cousin imprisoned with her who is gravely ill but receiving no treatment.

Then, an accident involving moving a heavy iron girder breaks her wrist. Without her extraordinary language knowledge, that injury would have been a death knell with no medical attention permitted, but medical care is given to enable her to continue translating. Finally, she escapes with several other girls while on a death march as the war is coming to an end and finds ordinary German citizens risking themselves and their families to give her a little food and a hiding place for at least a night.

The stories abound, spellbindingly driving forward as Mrs. Altmann moves around the Middlebrook auditorium, standing face-to-face with many audience members as she shares her microphone with them for their questions. Her elaborately woven tapestry forms into a whole picture that is disgusting in its brutality yet with those glimmers of light: her father’s blessing, the bowl of soup shared, the strangers offering tangible solace. Her message: we must remember. “It does me no good to hate. I just ask that you remember and think about how you treat others. Consider the implications of what happened in the Holocaust for the world we all now inhabit.”

Two days later came an evening of great light: the annual Wi-ACT Benefit Concert for its Rise Against Hunger meal-packaging all-day event, this year on Oct. 20. The concert took the form of a talent show organized by Middlebrook students themselves and with Middlebrook students as the performers — in beautiful songs and dramatic dance, on musical instruments ranging from drums to violin to piano, and concluding with a very engaging magic act. The meal-packaging objective this October of another 160,000 meals will take the results over eight years to the one-million-meal mark — the largest event in New England and one of the largest in the country, held annually right here in Wilton.

These students care passionately about helping the three-quarters of a billion of the world’s people who live on the edge of starvation, and especially children who are the focus of this meal-packaging work. These students recognize what needs to be done, and however daunting the task, they know that they can have an important role in moving the good forward. Judith Altmann surely is proud!