NORTH HAVEN — A Holocaust survivor brought history to life this week for almost 300 eighth grade students who heard her firsthand account of the 1940s genocide Friday morning.
Judith Altmann, of Stamford and originally from Czechoslovakia, shared her story with the students in hopes that they would understand what hate and discrimination can do, especially when people blindly follow power.
“It is unbelievable, in the 21st century, in a country like Germany with a high intellect, that these things can happen. That's why, for me, it is so important to educate and talk to young people like you; because they were also young people, Hitler focused very much on the youth, that was his most important thing,” Altmann said.
About 6 million people died in the Holocaust, including 1.5 million children.
Altmann was 14 years old when her democratic country was taken over by Hitler’s regimen. From 1939 to 1945, Altermann was forced through hard labor, lost most of her family, experienced absolute hunger, and spent six weeks in the infamous and largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz.
Altmann described years of painful hunger, disease, death, injury and loss to the students and teachers gathered.
She told the students about the last time she saw her parents, after they arrived at Auschwitz and were separated by Doctor Josef Mengele, who was called “the angel of death.”
Altmann and her niece were chosen to live based solely on their ability to work. She was separated from her father, mother, aunt, and nephews, who were marched to the gas chambers.
“As I passed my father's row, he put his hand on my head and he said, 'Judy, you will live" … these were the last words that I heard from my father,” Altmann told the students.
Their heads were completely shaven, the little belongings they had taken from them, made to strip, shower, and then wear only a plain gray sheet. The prisoners went into shelf-like bunk beds and soon asked what the horrific smell of burning hair was.
They were told it was their parents being burned.
“You are so young, I hate to tell you this horror, but you are the last generation that you will hear actual Holocaust survivors that lived it too,” Altmann said.
She also explained how an SS regiment woman had saved her life after her wrist was broken while doing factory work. Usually the sick or injured disappeared, likely killed, but Altmann was valued for her ability to speak multiple languages and get instructions for work.
She credits her education and this skill as the reason she was able to survive. She encouraged the students to take their educations seriously, to work hard and learn everything they can from their “terrific” teachers.
“In your place it's going to be for your career ... learn all you can, nobody can take your education away from you ... in my case, it literally saved my life,” Altmann said.
Altmann was at the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen when it was liberated on April 15, 1945. Because she knew English, she knew the soliders were saying “you are free.”
The prisoners were given several options for what to do next, and Altmann decided to go to Sweden and study before later being able to move to the United States in 1948.
“Nobody, nobody, loves this country and appreciates as these survivors do, because we know what it means to lose freedom,” she said.
The 94-year-old has spoken to thousands of people about her experience, in the hopes that it will enlighten young people about the horrors of 70 years ago. She said she has every right to hate those at fault for the loss of her family and youth, but told the students that hate can only hurt yourself, it doesn’t hurt those you hate.
Event organizer and English teacher Alicia Crismale said Altmann survived something that should never even be imaginable.
“She is a hero, she is a superhero in every sense of the word, because her work that she does every single day is to spread her story and to encourage kindness, to not be a bystander, to be an upstander; to not put up with hate,” Crismale said. Holocaust curriculum
The middle school has had other survivors come to speak to students for several years, but this year teacher Krista Kaplan pushed the program to be more interactive and engaging for the students, after seeing them just not “getting it” in the past.
Earlier in the week, students learned about the rise of the Nazi regime and participated in a “Museum Walk” where they read posters, looked at photos and watched a short video overview of the Holocaust. Each student was given an ID card with the biography of someone who had been in the camps, and after pinpointing their country of origin on the map, went to the auditorium to sit by gender and age. The students then opened envelopes to see if their person had died, and the students could see how many of them were left standing, having survived.
“I think that hit a lot of them hard, because you say 6 million and they don't realize what that looks like,” Kaplan said.
After the speaker, she also planned a presentation about anti-semitism in the modern world.
Deputy director of the Connecticut Anti-Defamation League office, Marji Lipshez-Shapiro said Kaplan and Crismale’s efforts were impressive compared to what other schools are doing. She said the activities before and after the speaker help to hone in the message.
“All of us are being inundated with these images and stories and it's hard to make something stick so that's what's so incredible about what they did here,” Lipshez-Shapiro said.
The multiple-day program was paid for by the Parent Teacher School Association, which also donated to the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut.