Holocaust survivor urges students to fight injustice
STAMFORD — Judith Altmann’s life changed forever the year she was 14.
It was 1939, the year Nazis invaded her hometown of Jasina, Czechoslovakia. Altmann had to start wearing a yellow Star of David and couldn’t go to school. Nazis took her father’s general store and the family’s horses and cows.
The family was left with one cow, which Altmann’s mother used to make cheese and butter. Once a month, she hired someone to bring the food to Altmann’s older sister in Poland. One day, the person came back and said the food could not be delivered. The person witnessed the execution of Altmann’s sister who was forced to strip naked and watch her children be shot before she was killed.
Altmann told her story, along with others from her time in Auschwitz, to seventh-graders at Scofield Magnet Middle School on Friday.
It was Altmann’s 13th visit to the school and came shortly after a study from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany showed two-thirds of millennials do not know what Auschwitz is while one-fifth haven’t heard of the Holocaust.
“We’re very lucky, “said Jen Robertson, a seventh-grade art teacher who helped coordinate Altmann’s visit. “Especially with kids of this age, it’s very important for them to be exposed to the idea of the Holocaust. A lot don’t know about it until we do this. To meet a survivor, they’re the last generation to get to do that.”
Scofield Principal Scott Clayton said Altmann’s visit coincides with the seventh-graders’ study of European history, as well as their reading of “Night” by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
“They walk away completely stunned something like this could’ve happened not that long ago,” Clayton said. “They can read about history, they can see videos, but the most powerful thing is when they can see a woman who survived Auschwitz.”
Altmann and her family were arrested and brought to Auschwitz in 1944. They arrived on May 21, which Altmann remembers as the last day she saw her family, most of whom were killed in the concentration camp. As Altmann was being led away from her father, he put his hand on her head, like he did when blessing her on Fridays, the Sabbath, and told her “Judy, you will live.”
“These were the last words I ever heard from my father,” she said.
Over the next year, Altmann went from Auschwitz to labor camps where she survived on scraps of bread and black water. At one point, she broke her wrist, but was saved by an SS officer who took her to the hospital because she wanted to keep Altmann around for her language skills.
“Learn all you can,” said Altmann, who speaks seven languages. “You will use it for livelihood and knowledge. In my case, it kept me alive. No one can take this from you.”
Altmann was freed in 1945 after surviving the death march to Bergen Belsen and battling typhus. She moved to Sweden and spent a year recovering from her illness before immigrating to the United States in 1948. Now 93, she has lived in Stamford since 1975 when her job in technical writing and design moved her here.
Despite experiene, Altmann said she tries not to hold onto hate. Instead, she speaks at about 50 schools a year and encourages students to intervene when they see injustice.
“It’s important to reach young people,” she said. “They should create a better world.”
Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann shares her story last year.