Holocaust Survivor to Rye Neck HS Students: ‘Never Forget’

Holocaust Survivor to Rye Neck HS Students: ‘Never Forget’ photo

As Judith Altmann, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor, recalled the last words she heard from her father after her family had just arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp, her eyes filled with tears.

“As I passed by father’s row, he placed his hand on my head as he did every Friday to bless us, and he said, ‘Judy, you will live,’” she said, her voice quivering.

Those were the words, she said, that kept her alive while she endured the most horrific acts of hatred in her life. That, and her strong desire to live long enough to be free. Altmann, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1924, survived two different ghettos, the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Essen and Gelsenkirchen labor camps and a “death march” that ended in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, where she was liberated by the British in 1945. Since then, she has dedicated her life to sharing her story with young people in hope of inspiring them to stand up for injustices. 

“Promise me that you will never forget,” Altmann told a group of 10th-graders at Rye Neck High School on March 19. “Tell your children, tell your grandchildren what discrimination and hate can do. This is what you heard happened to people because there was indifference and hate. You can build a better life.” 

Altmann – the youngest of six siblings from an upper middle class family – recalled her “wonderful life” in her hometown of Jasina. Her father owned a general store, a big house and a farm, where they cared for numerous animals. But her life changed when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. She spent several years living under Nazi occupation and in fear. One early morning in April, the day after Passover, a group of German SS officers and Hungarian gendarmes gathered her family and took them to a ghetto for several weeks before they were crammed into a cattle car and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.    

“It was the longest four and a half days of my life,” Altmann said of her journey, during which a man died, a woman gave birth and children were crying, all while everyone was “crammed like sardines.” 

Upon arrival to Auschwitz on May 21 – a date she remembers vividly because it was her father’s birthday – Altmann said her family was separated. She came face-to-face with Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death” for determining who lives and who dies. Altmann, her niece and nephew were told to go to the left and chosen to work, while the rest of her family was told to go to the right and sent to the gas chambers. 

“That was the last time I saw my parents and 24 members of my family,” Altmann said. 

She recalled the unimaginable suffering she endured at Auschwitz, as well as the living conditions at the Essen and Gelsenkirchen labor camps. During one incident at Gelsenkirchen, she recalled that when a heavy piece of iron fell on her left wrist and broke it, she would have normally been taken back to Auschwitz and executed. But in the middle of the night, a female SS officer tapped her on her shoulder and took her to the hospital to get a cast. On their way back, the officer acquired a letter saying that she needed Altmann because she spoke several languages and if she was taken, the work at the factory would suffer. 

“Learn all that you can because no one can take that away from you,” Altmann said to the students. “In my case, the knowledge of language saved my life.” 

When Altmann was liberated in 1945, she moved to Sweden where she went back to school, learned another language and became a technical writer and designer. She immigrated to the United States in 1948, where she later got married and had two sons. 

“I know you will change the world,” Altmann told the students, adding that they are fortunate to live in a free country and urged them to hug their parents and grandparents and be grateful that they have each other. “Have positive thinking and good outlook on life. There is always tomorrow.” 

Altmann’s visit to the high school was generously sponsored by the Rye Neck PTSA High School/Middle School STEAM Committee, chaired by Susan Banker.