Young people today are the last generation to meet Holocaust survivors. This reality was one of the reasons that Principal Rich Leprine invited Mrs. Judith Altmann to speak to John Jay Middle School, particularly after he attended her inspiring presentation at John Jay High School earlier this year.
“You are about to meet a witness to history,” said Paul Ciancio, eighth grade social studies teacher, as he introduced Mrs. Altmann to eighth graders on May 11. “Mrs. Altmann’s personal experience of tragedy and triumph is a primary source—her story will give you a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events. It will also inspire you to confront prejudice and hate wherever it exists.”
The eighth graders knew they were going to meet a Holocaust survivor. They may not have expected the petite and professional, lively, warm, and spry Mrs. Altmann. Dressed in a black jacket and trousers, with short auburn hair, she spoke in elegantly accented English.
“You are fortunately to be born in the most wonderful country in the world,” she said to the young people sitting in front of her.
With those words, she began her story.
"I was the youngest child in a Jewish family of six children in Czechoslovakia, a democratic country. My father owned a general store, and we had a big house in town as well as a farm with horses and cows. One of my brothers was a dentist, another lived in the United States, where my grandmother also lived. Two of my older sisters were married; each had two children. I spoke five languages: Czech, Hungarian, German, English, and Polish."
When Altmann was fourteen, the Nazis took over her country, and her life turned upside down. The soldiers took her family's farm, business, and home. They were made to wear a yellow Star of David and walk in the gutter. She could no longer attend school. One night the Nazis knocked on the door and told her family they had thirty minutes to take their money and jewels and gather with the other Jews in the town cemetery.
What happened next, and how she survived, is the story that she travels the country telling people, especially school children. Her account of being sent to Auschwitz, losing her father and mother—and twenty other members of her family—moments after the cattle car they were crammed into pulled into the concentration camp, being transported to work camps in Gelsenkirchen and Essen, and forced on a “death march” to Bergan-Belsen, is horrific and riveting.
Knowing she survived, and witnessing her strong spirit, was an inspiring experience for all in the auditorium. At the end of her presentation, students came forward to thank her for coming.