“My father put his hand on my head, as he did every Friday night when he blessed us for the Shabbos dinner, and said, ‘Judy, you will live.’ That was the last thing he said to me before going to the gas.”
Judith Altmann recalled her father’s last words during her presentation to about 250 people last night at Middlebrook, with straightforward, brutal recollection. It was one of the few times her voice wavered as the 93-year-old survivor recounted what happened to her and her family during the Holocaust, to an audience filled with many Wilton children the same age as she was when Hitler’s campaign of evil began. It was a history lesson so many in that room will never forget.
She told them what it felt like to stand upright in a cattle car for four days, packed in so tightly with 120 other people that when one man died during that transport, there was not even space to move his body. She recalled arriving at Auschwitz and being pulled to the left out of the line with only her younger niece as 24 other family members were sent to the right, the side that meant death in those gas chambers. She described what it was like to be forced to strip naked and have her hair shaved after arriving at the extermination camp. She spoke of smelling a horrible smell of burning hair in the air all around, asking what it was, and being told by another prisoner, “That is your family.”
But she also told the audience about hope, about perseverance and what it took to survive–and to do so with incredible spirit and, remarkably, without hate. As she told them about the last words her father spoke to her, Judith added, “These are the words that kept me alive when I thought I could no longer endure.”
Her story of survival wove through not only Auschwitz but Essen and Gelsenkirchen labor camps, and later the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She was always with her niece, just two years younger than Judith. In one hopeless situation in a string of hopeless situations, Judith recalled volunteering to move dead bodies in order to earn a bowl of soup for her niece who was sick with jaundice.
What helped saved Judith was her knowledge of several languages, among them Czech, Polish, German, Yiddish and Hungarian. Those language skills made her valuable to her captors, including one woman SS officer who actually took Judith to get a cast after a piece of metal fell on her wrist in a munitions factory where she worked, saving her from getting put with other disabled people to be sent to the gas chamber. The officer told the doctor, “I need this girl. She speaks six languages and if she’s not here, the work won’t get done.” In that gesture, Judith even saw a bit of humanity.
She told her audience that her knowledge and education were her savior.
“You students are the most fortunate and live in the most wonderful country in the world. Learn all you can, because nobody can take this away from you.”
In that story of survival, Judith wove her tale of what it took to go from being a 14-year-old girl in Jasina Czechoslovakia, to Auschwitz, Essen, and Gelsenkirchen, surviving the “death march” to Bergen Belsen, and being near death from typhus when she was liberated by the British Army in 1945. It took her to Sweden until 1948 when she immigrated to the United States.
And it brought her so many years later to Wilton to deliver her message about speaking out against intolerance: “If you see any injustice in the world, stand up.”
She also acknowledged that she is one of just a few remaining Holocaust survivors still alive, and stressed how important it is for her story to continue to be told, for people to never forget.
“Tell your children, tell your grandchildren this story, what discrimination and hate can do.”
After her talk, those Wilton teens and tweens who heard her story, crowded around Judith at the front of the auditorium, thanking her, asking to take photos with her, giving her hugs. She stood amongst them, surrounded by their awe, respect and understanding, after accomplishing what she set out to do at the beginning of the evening–ensuring that her message of hope and remembrance, and of never forgetting will survive, just as she had.