Judith Altmann

Finding Hope in a very dark time

In the darkness of Judith Altmann’s story of surviving the Holocaust, an unlikely figure of hope stands out: an SS Guard named Erika. When Altmann was in a Nazi labor camp, a piece of iron fell on her wrist. The injury should have sent her to the gas chamber. But Erika intervened, saying that because Altmann spoke six languages, she was still “useful.”

Altmann returned the kindness in the best way she could: by knitting a pair of socks for Erika from a discarded sock that she had found. Although she had no socks or shoes of her own, she used her water rations to wash the sock, fashioned knitting needles from the spokes of a broken umbrella, unraveled the sock, and knit a pair with the wool. “Erika was so moved,” said Altmann.

meeting An amazing woman with a powerful story

Visit Arranged by Students to Combat Hate

Altmann shared this story with John Jay students during an hour and a half webinar on Wednesday, March 29. It got to the heart of the message she wanted students to hear: Do not carry hate. Try to be kind. Be a good human being.

Her visit was arranged by senior Lavi Ohana and juniors Ella Kerman and Dagan Ohana who sought to make a difference in combatting hate at John Jay High School. The three, who host a podcast called Jay Talks, also moderated the conversation with Altmann, posing students’ questions during the second half of the program.

“The students were very concerned about the report of the swastika drawing found at John Jay a few months ago,” said Principal Steven Siciliano. “They came forward and sought to play a constructive role. We all thank them for their passion and their leadership in making the webinar take place and be successful.”

An eyewitness account of what hate can do

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, now a proud American, Altmann gave students and staff an eyewitness account of what hate can do. Hearing the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand was intense and sobering.

When the Nazi SS knocked on her family’s door, Altmann and her parents were marched six kilometers into town. “Neighbors watched, but no one did anything,” said Altmann. They lived in a ghetto for several weeks before being crammed into a cattle car and transported to Auschwitz concentration camp.

There, Altmann and her parents were separated by the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. She was directed one way; her parents, another—to their death.

Altmann was later sent to Essen and Gelsenkirchen labor camps and survived the "death march" that ended in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Sick with typhus, she was barely alive when she was liberated by the British Army in 1945.

A Q&A with Altmann

“What kept you going?” one student asked.

“Before we were separated at Auschwitz, 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. Those words kept me alive,” Altmann said.

Another question: “Do you hold resentment?”

“I do not,” said Altmann. “That would only hurt me.”

"This is good for my heart."

Thank you, Mrs. Altmann

Many questions had to do with what precautions students could take so that something like the Holocaust will never happen again.

“If you see hate, ask why. Discuss it gently, not with a fight. Talk. Explain. Buy a book that will clear minds and enlighten people. It’s up to you. Do the right thing. With God’s help, you will have a good future.”

After Lavi thanked Altmann for speaking to the students, the woman, who has told her story to more than 200,000 students, said simply: “This conversation is warm and interesting. It is good for my heart.”