The 2021 Speaker Series concluded April 1 with a presentation by Holocaust survivor and Connecticut resident Judith Altmann, who shared her incredibly moving story. A member of the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Speakers Bureau and Vice President of the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut, Altmann has extensive experience speaking in schools.
“Without an invitation, there would be no way for us to tell our young people what hate and discrimination achieves,” said Altmann, 97, who according to the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, has spoken about her experience to more than 100,000 children at hundreds of schools.
She brought to The Frederick Gunn School a dual message: “My advice to you: learn all you can. The knowledge of languages I spoke saved my life. Because of that I was picked to be saved. So study all you can, and help wherever you can. If you see a person needs help, do that, and if you see anybody picking on anybody and somebody is being discriminated against, explain it to the person,” she said, encouraging students to stand up and use their voice when they witness hate or discrimination anywhere.
Most of them never returned
Born in Jasina, a small town of about 15,000 in Czechoslovakia, Altmann was 14 years old when the Nazis invaded in 1939. Hitler had already invaded Austria, and after the Sudetenland was annexed, all of Czechoslovakia fell. “He did not stop. On March 15, 1939, he just walked into Czechoslovakia with the entire army, opened the windows from the [Prague] castle and said, ‘We are here to protect you.’ He said he meant from the Russians.”
“All of us were ready to fight. My brothers were already dressed in their Czech uniforms. They all went through the army but nothing happened. Czechoslovakia gave up and we were so disappointed. Why didn’t we fight?” said Altmann, who was the youngest of six children in her family.
All Jewish people were required to wear a yellow Star of David. This included the 5,000 Jewish families in her hometown. “You had to sew it on, on the left arm and on the back. We were marked, actually. Every Jewish man from the age 18 to 45 was taken to slave labor camp. Most of them never returned.”
“His aim,” she said of Hitler, “was that he was going to kill all the Jews. He said he is going to kill all the Slavs, that means, anybody of Slavic descent, like the Poles, the Czechs, the Yugoslavs. He wanted a reine Rasse, a pure race, all German, when he was finished with the war.”
Six million Jews were killed, 10 million people all together. Jewish men were taken from the towns first, to dig mass graves. The following day, German officers and soldiers forced all of the Jewish people out of the town to the gravesite. They were forced to get undressed, so the Army could repurpose their clothing, and then killed. “The brutality. They shot the children first, the fathers then, and at the end, the mothers. The mothers had to watch all their husbands and children be shot into mass graves,” she said, recalling that in 1943, the Germans determined this process was too costly and too slow, and decided to build gas chambers and crematoriums that would kill thousands per day. “This was all planned ahead of time.”
What discrimination and hate could do
In Jasina, Altmann’s father owned a general store and the family also had a farm, where she was able to live with her parents until 1944. Two of her brothers had been taken to slave labor camps in Poland, and her two sisters, who were already married, lived near the family’s farm. One was in Jasina, and another, Charlotte, lived about a half hour away in Poland with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. Although the German army had taken away the Altmanns’ store and most of the animals on their farm, they were left with one cow, which provided some milk, butter and cheese, and they hired a local man, who was not Jewish, to take food to Charlotte and her family. “One day he comes back with the satchel with the food and he said to my parents, ‘I regret very much that I could not deliver the food to Charlotte … as I witnessed her execution.’”
After that, Altmann had to stop attending school. German officers took over their house, and she and her mother moved into the summer kitchen while her father, who had been beaten by German soldiers, hid in the attic. Altmann’s oldest brother, who had been living in Belgium, was able to escape to the United States in 1939. “He was the only lucky one,” she said, recalling, “Every day there were different rumors. We were petrified and frightened at all times. It was a horrible thing, what discrimination and hate could do."
Early one morning, in April 1944, two German officers and two Hungarian gendarmes knocked on their window. The Altmanns were told they had a half hour to prepare and should pack any valuables. Her father, who was a religious man, took his prayer book, and Altmann took her manicure set, a gift on her most recent birthday. She had to persuade her mother to go with them, as she was threatening suicide.
“It was Easter Sunday, so this time of the year is very painful. We marched six kilometers to town. The non-Jewish people looked at us and nobody said anything. Nobody asked even, ‘Where are you taking these people?’ These were our friends. They went to school with me,” Altmann recalled, her voice breaking.
The family was directed to the Jewish cemetery, where they remained for one week before being put on a train to Hungary. They lived in a ghetto with thousands of Jewish people from all over the region. Conditions were very cramped, with multiple families in a house. Six weeks later, they were put on another train. This time, rather than passenger cars, they were packed into cattle cars, 75 to 80 people in each, with no food, and one tiny window for air. The train did not move until the following morning. People were already dying, and children were screaming due to hunger and thirst. The SS men threatened to shoot everyone if they could not make the screaming stop. “We had to tie the people’s mouths and their hands in order that they would not scream,” Altmann said.
The Angel of Death
When the train stopped, men, women and children were instructed to line up, and the soldiers killed anyone who was sick or could no longer walk with their bayonets. Those who were able to marched for about an hour to a place they would later learn was Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps. Altmann remembered seeing a German officer. He was tall and handsome, with shiny boots, and carried a rubber stick in his hand. “In front of us is Dr. Josef Mengele. He was called ‘the Angel of Death.’ He was to determine who shall live and who shall die." He looked at Altmann and pointed to the left, and directed her parents to the right. “We were marching to the left and they were marching to their death,” she said.
Altmann was put into a line with other healthy, young people Mengele had selected for work. “We all had beautiful hair. They cut our hair, completely bald, and we were told to go a step further and we stood in front of a barrel. We were told to get undressed, completely naked. We were given a little, tiny piece of soap and in front of us it says ‘water.’ In our case, we went into a shower, but [in] our parents' case, they went into a gas chamber… and immediately to the crematorium.”
The entire camp was surrounded by barbed wire that was electrified, and if anyone tried to escape, they were shot immediately by guards armed with machine guns in the towers. Altmann was given a plain, gray dress and a pair of wooden shoes, and stood outside for many hours. She walked one hour from Auschwitz to Birkenau, where 1,400 women were placed in huge, low barracks. They slept in bunks that looked like bookshelves and the supervisor, who was also Jewish, told them not to make a sound. “Suddenly there is the most horrific smell… of burning. It’s choking,” Altmann said, recalling that she asked another Czech prisoner, who had been there for a few years, "'What is that horrible smell?' She said, ‘Oh these are your parents burning.’”
The prisoners were woken at 5 a.m. and made to stand roll call each day. “You stand there and Dr. Josef Mengele comes every other day and looks at the people that he already went through. If you are pale, he’ll take you out. If he sees two girls looking alike, like sisters, he will take one out, or a mother and daughter that he might have picked, he’ll take one out. He did not want to have any relatives together,” she recalled. “We stand on line for hours.”
They had been given no food and were afraid they would die of hunger. After the second day, they were given a little dish, so they could get a little soup in the evening. They received two ounces of water for the day. “It was a horrible place,” she said. Their greatest fear was that they would not make it back to the barracks from roll call.
A life saved
Altmann survived for six weeks in Auschwitz before being taken by train to the Gelsenkirchen work camp in Germany. She was one of about 2,000 young Czech women who were taken there to work in shifts, half of them during the day, and the other half at night. They were beaten by the SS men and women, but they knew they were out of Auschwitz. “It wasn’t easy. It was cold. We had to walk barefoot. We worked there many, many hours a day,” said Altmann, who was moved next to Essen, another work camp, where she worked inside.
“A piece of iron fell on my left wrist and it broke,” she said, explaining that if she could not work, she would be taken away, never to be seen again. “There was an SS woman, Erika. She liked me because I spoke fluent German.”
Actually, Altmann spoke six languages, and she was deemed useful for her ability to translate. “I was doomed because my arm was broken and they were going to take me away to send me back to Auschwitz or whatever was the nearest extermination camp. Erika said, ‘Do not take this girl. I need her because she does the translation for me.’ She saved my life.”
From Essen, Altmann was taken to another camp, which was even worse. She did not know if she would get any food from one day to the next, and then she was told to go on a “death march” that would end at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “At this point, we are so emaciated. We are barely breathing. You see a mother and daughter and one is dying, or she is already dead. The other one that is still alive does not want to leave the sibling or the daughter. We have to pull them away in hopes that they will survive. Then we start marching and we walk without any food. Occasionally, they will throw a little bread for us, but most of the time, nothing. It was the most horrible thing that I could tell you.”
When she finally got to Bergen-Belsen, she said, “It was the worst camp that you can imagine. It was unbelievable… dead bodies wherever you turn.” Her niece was with her and was so hungry. She asked Altmann for help. “I see the SS man behind the wire, walking with a gun, and eating a sandwich. I said, what can I lose? He might shoot me. I can’t take it any longer myself and I ask him, ‘Can you spare a bite?’ He called me different names, and as he walked by, he dropped a little piece of his sandwich. It’s under the wire. And he walks away,” recalled Altmann, who used a stick to pull the sandwich under the wire and brought it back to her niece, dividing it in three between her, her niece and another girl.
Altmann recounted that towards the end of the war, Hitler had ordered each of the camps to stock a barracks full of sliced bread that had been poisoned. “He’d already seen that he was losing the war. He said, ‘If you see either Allies or the Americans or the Russians coming and they near the camp, give everyone a slice of poisoned bread so they find bodies, not people.’”
Fortunately, those orders were not carried out at any of the camps, said Altmann, who was sick with typhus and near death when her camp was liberated in 1945 by the British Army. She remembers one of the soldiers spoke to her in English. “I said I must be dreaming. He didn’t think I was young. I must have looked 100 years old to him. He said, ‘You are free.’”
“‘You are free.’ What a wonderful , wonderful thing to hear: You are free,” she said.
Many more people died in the first few days after liberation because the soldiers gave them all of the food they had, and the people ate so much, their stomachs couldn’t tolerate that, she said. Churches and schools were converted into hospitals to give help to the thousands who survived. At this point, Altmann had a choice to make. “Now we are free, but what do we do? We know we have no more parents. Do we have any siblings left? What do we do? My niece is still alive as well. I saw her in one of the places, in a bed with a white sheet. She said, ‘As soon as I’m able to stand on my feet, I’m going to go back home, hoping I will find my brother.’ I said, ‘I’m not going back. I have nobody there.’”
Instead, Altmann chose to go to Sweden, which she knew was a free country and was not involved in the war. She spent six weeks in quarantine and one year in a hospital, regaining her health. After that, she went back to school, and waited to go to the United States, where she had a brother, a grandmother, uncles, and aunts, all waiting. She has dedicated her life to educating children about the Holocaust and helping wherever she can.