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Trim and polished in a blue pants suit, with smooth auburn hair, arched eyebrows and a hint of a European accent, ninety-three-year-old Judith Altmann’s poise belies the horrific events she lived through. She came to John Jay High School at the invitation of the school’s Campus Congress to share her story, her positive outlook, and her hope for what each of us can do to combat acts of hatred.
“You are a special group. You are the last generation to meet Holocaust survivors,” said Mrs. Altmann.
“I was your age—fourteen years old—when the Nazis knocked on our door and told my family we had half an hour to pack up our money and jewels and leave," said Mrs. Altmann. "What do you take after living your entire life? My mom wanted to take her life. My dad took his prayer book.”
Like Katonah-Lewisboro, Mrs. Altmann’s hometown of Jasina, Czechoslovakia, was largely upper middle class, and in a democratic country. Her dad owned a general store, and they had a big house in town as well as a farm in the country.
“The Nazis took my family. They took my youth,” said Mrs. Altmann. Rather than attending high school, she and her family were made to live in a ghetto for several weeks before being crammed into a cattle car and transported to Auschwitz concentration camp.
Upon arrival, she and her family were separated—her niece, nephew and herself on one side—everyone else on the other. In front of them stood the German doctor Josef Mengele known as the “Angel of Death."
As Mrs. Altmann recollected what happened next, her voice shook. “My father put his hand on my head like he did every Friday night, and said, ‘Judy, you will live.’ I never saw him or my mother again.”
“We had beautiful hair, like you young ladies,” said Mrs. Altmann, looking over John Jay’s auditorium. “They shaved our heads. We were each given a shift and wooden clogs. We were not picked to live; we were picked to work.”
She recalled the living conditions at Essen and Gelsenkirchen Labor camps, how her knowledge of languages saved her life, and the "death march" that ended in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, where she remained until the British Army liberated the camp.
“I told myself that if I survived I would tell the world what discrimination can do,” said Mrs. Altmann. “You children are our future. You are going to make a better world. Tell this story to your children and your grandchildren because you know what intolerance can do.’
"Nobody loves this country as much as we survivors do because we know what freedom is," said Mrs. Altman.
After the presentation, students asked questions about why the Jews were hated, where she found her strength, if she could forgive, and what she felt when she heard about the swastikas in their school.
“I have to admit I was very frightened and disturbed when I heard about the swastikas,” said Mrs. Altmann. “When we were liberated we said, ‘never again.’ When you see any injustice, say something. Talk to that person. Educate others not to hate.”
“I know you will have a wonderful life and be a great influence on others,” said Mrs. Altmann before the students gave her a standing ovation and came forward to hug her and thank her.