(Segment 1) Early Life
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Judith Altman was born October 10, 1924 in Jasina, Czechoslovakia, into a family named Bohorochaleroba [Annotator’s Note: phonetic spelling], later changed to Bohrer. [Annotator’s Note: Altmann spelled this name.] Her married name is Altmann. Her father was an educated man who was learned enough to be a rabbi, but chose to be a businessman. He married Altmann’s mother when she was sixteen. Theirs was a family of six children: an older stepsister, Berta, and Altmann’s natural siblings, Charlotte, Ira, Bernard, Emanuel, and herself.
Jasina was a town of predominately Rusyn people, with a Jewish population of about five thousand. There was a good relationship between the Gentiles and Jews. Jasina was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until Czechoslovakia declared its independence in 1918. Altmann’s parents liked living under the Austro-Hungarians, as Emperor Franz-Josef was friendly toward the Jews. When the Czechs took over, it was a wonderful life, and Altmann’s parents were great Czech patriots. The teachers, police, military officers were all Czechoslovakian. The children loved the Czech schools.
Altmann’s father had a general store, and a lot of land. Their home was six kilometers [Annotator’s Note: four miles] out of town – on the road to where the Tisza River originates [Annotator’s Note: the Tisza is a major tributary of the Danbe]. The general store sold everything, including food, tobacco and liquor. Altmann said her mother was an excellent businesswoman and very efficient housewife.
Judith Altmann said that when the Germans occupied Jasina, they confiscated everything from the Bohrer family farm, their horses, and all their cows except one. They were able, however, to continue keeping a garden.
Altmann’s stepsister, Berta, lived 24 kilometers away, but still in the same town. She was married with two adolescent children. There went into effect a law, pertaining to Jews only, stipulating that members of any family in any area occupied by Adolf Hitler who did not pay taxes in 1849 were to be deported to Poland. Berta’s husband’s family was not qualified to stay, so they were deported. When Berta got to Poland, she somehow escaped to Hungary and hid there.
Charlotte, Altmann’s oldest natural sister, married a Polish man and they lived in Poland with their two young children. Charlotte’s is a sad story. Although they were able to stay in their hometown, their business was confiscated. Until 1942, the Bohrers were able to send them a bundle of food by way of a peasant they hired for that purpose once a month. One day in 1942, the peasant returned the package with the regrettable news [Annotator’s Note: Altman chokes back tears] that he had witnessed the Germans forcing the people of their town to dig their own graves, and then to undress. The Germans the shot them all, children first, then the men, then the women.
Altmann’s oldest brother, Ira, was married and lived in Antwerp, Belgium with two sons. Ira fled through Spain and many other places to England, to join the Czechoslovak army and fight against the Germans. His wife and sons went to the south of France, and were hidden by a Gentile family, and survived.
Bernard, another of Altmann’s brothers, had left home for the United States in 1939.
Altmann’s youngest brother, Emanuel, was a dentist who was drafted by the Germans and worked as slave labor ahead of the German army. Without uniforms, the men in his group were exposed to many horrors, and were likely to die from hunger or hard work. He was in a German camp for three years, subsequently captured by the Russians, and sent to Siberia. In 1945, he was freed, and struggled for an entire year to make his way back to Czechoslovakia.
Judith Altmann was the last of the Bohrer children at home. Earlier, she might have left with the Kindertransport, but she would not leave her parents. [Annotator’s Note: Kindertransport was an organized rescue effort that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Children were taken from Nazi-occupied lands and placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms.] Family life had completely changed. The Germans took the Bohrer’s store, and put in commissars.
The children in Jasina could no longer go to school. They had heard what was happening in different parts of Europe, and were terribly frightened. Altmann and her best friend considered suicide, but knew that would hurt their parents.
In 1939, Germany gave part of the Ukraine to Hungary, which was also a Nazi-regime. The Hungarians were not friendly to the Czechs. Every man in Jasina between the ages of 18 and 45 was taken for slave labor. Although the Bohrer’s business was gone, the family still had money. Altmann’s mother converted it all to gold, because it was rumored that gold might save your life.
Because the Bohrers had a big house, groups of German officers routinely appropriated it for lodging. The women would resort to a little summer kitchen in the back, and Altmann’s father had to hide in the attic. He was a very religious man, and wore a traditional beard, which put him at risk of being beaten by the Germans and some of the Hungarians. Once, because she could communicate with the commanding German officer in his own language, Altmann was able to spare her father a beating. They were constantly afraid.
Many people in Hungary tried to convert from Judaism to save themselves, but it did not help, nor did the ability to speak German. Hitler had set a genetic scale; those who were less Jewish were a little less punished.
In 1939 Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia, and the Ukrainians, who wanted autonomy, had one day to annex themselves, but they did not have enough people. On that one day, an anti-Semitic group chose ten Jewish people from Jasina to hang on top of Mount Hoverla. Altmann’s mother was one of the ten because she used to remind the peasants of their unpaid accounts at the family store, and the peasants had it in for her. The other nine were either wealthy or persons the Ukrainians didn’t like. The Jews prayed to be occupied by Germans or anybody else in order to escape. Fortunately the Germans came, and Altmann’s mother was saved.
The Altmann family was miserable. Incoming mail was censored. There was no hope of escape because Hitler claimed he would conquer the world, and at that time he was doing very well.
Judith Altmann remembered it was the morning after the last day of Passover in 1942, and two SS officers and two Hungarian gendarmes knocked on the window at 6:30 in the morning, telling them they had half an hour to collect their money, jewels and enough food for a day, then go into Jasina. The Bohrers were the last but one family on the street. The last family, with six children, was very poor, and was unable to produce the necessary papers. They were taken a short distance away and killed.
The children didn’t communicate their fears to their parents, even though they had heard dreadful stories, because they wanted to shield them. Altmann felt terribly sorry for her father, who was worried about his other children.
The Altmanns were faced with the decision of what to take. The father took his prayer shawl, and his prayer book. The mother said she was going to drink something and kill herself, but was at length persuaded to join the march to town. Altmann took her last birthday present, a manicure set and a spring coat.
The procession to town was a terrible sight. Infirm people had to be carried. Once everyone was gathered in town, they were told to walk up to the cemetery. Her father commented on how convenient that would be for the Germans. But they were not shot there. After a week, with not enough food and no shelter or sanitary facilities, the people were told that one member of each family could go home to fetch any remaining money and jewels. Altmann went home and told their maid to make bread in which to hide their valuables, and to bring it to the cemetery. She found that her beautiful German shepherd dog had stopped eating and died. Everything of value was gone, except the furniture. The maid never came to the cemetery, and Altmann hoped she was able to put the money to good use. Some 5,000 people were crowded in the cemetery on
Easter Sunday, and the local priest told the Catholics that they could take food to the Jewish people at the cemetery, if they wished. Some of them did.
From the cemetery, they were marched to the railroad, where they were jammed into passenger cars and taken to a ghetto in Mateszalka, Hungary. There, in a remote and primitive area of small houses, each filled with many people, they joined thousands of people from Hungary as well as Carpathians from the Ukraine. They were kept there six weeks.
Judith Altmann said that while in Mateszalka, Hungary, young people like herself were cleaning the ghetto, minding small children, cooking, and doing all that could be done. They were doled one meal a day that consisted of a bowl of soup, and sometimes a piece of bread. [Annotator’s Note: Altmann paused, swallowed.] The situation was very sad.
After six weeks they were told to go to the railroad. This time they were put into cattle cars, 65 to 75 people to each car. They prayed their families could be kept together. They had to wait, standing in the cars, until the entire ghetto had been emptied, a process that took all night.
The rail car Altmann was in had one small, high window. Each car was issued an empty bowl for use as a toilet, and one bowl filled with drinking water, which the children drank right away. The stench was horrible. [Annotator’s Note: Altmannn’s chokes as she describes the situation.] A man died that first night on the train, and the SS guard’s instruction was to put him in a corner. Women were giving birth, delivering babies without any light. People were screaming.
Some people went berserk. They started hitting each other. The guards said if the disruptive behavior didn’t stop, the prisoners would be taken out and shot on the spot. So the others bound the mouths and hands of those who lost their minds to keep them quiet.
Altmann describes it as the longest, most miserable four-and-a-half days of their lives.
Judith Altmann arrived [Annotator’s Note: Altmann arrived by rail car] at an unknown location and was greeted by guards in striped uniforms shouting, “Out” [Annotator’s Note: Altmann speaks the word in a foreign language, then translates]. Those unable to move were left where they were. Altmann noted a large sign that read Arbeit macht frei, which she translated into Work Will Liberate You [Annotator’s Note: Altmann’s words]. There was a band of people in striped uniforms playing classical music. The arrivals were confounded by what they encountered. SS officers were present, but seemed detached from the confusion that prevailed. Inquiries as to their location were answered with: this is Hell.
Men and women were separated, and small children were divided from their mothers.
The guards were shouting, in several languages, the word fourteen. Again, no-one understood what was going on. At this point, Altmann described the arrival of a tall, handsome man in shiny boots. He was, according to Altmann, Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, there to determine who would live and who would die. His attention centered on the women’s group, and he selected those who were tall and healthy -- they went to the left, all others went to the right. The number fourteen was an indication of the acceptable prisoners’ age. Altmann and her niece, Ida, were sent to the left. Those who went right were destined to die.
When Altmann’s group left the arrival grounds, she passed the men’s group and saw her father. He placed both hands on her head in blessing and said, “Judy, you will live.” [Annotator’s Note: Altmann shows emotion, and begins to cry] Those were the last words she heard her father utter.
Her group was led to a building where men in striped uniforms stood prepared to cut the prisoners’ hair. The prisoners were sheared, and ordered to completely undress. She, like most of the other young women, was unused to disrobing in front of men. Bald, bathed and naked, they were presented with their only apparel: a grey dress and wooden clogs.
Her group was marched, for about an hour, from Auschwitz to Birkenau. There they were led into barracks block number 14, where the bunks were stacked three high. Five to a bunk, they were just settled when they heard an alarm [Annotator’s Note: Altmann says the word for the alarm in German]. Soon afterward, she recognized the horrific smell of burning hair and nails. Altmann asked a concentration camp veteran what was causing the odor. The reply was [Annotator’s Note: Altmann begins to cry] these are your parents burning.
Altmann’s group had been chosen to work in Germany and Poland. On any given day, five or six transports were brought to Auschwitz; but once Mengele had selected a quota of workers, all others were executed on arrival. Altman quoted Mengele, “If the war ends at 12:00 o’clock, at 11:55 [he] will have time to kill the rest of [us].”Retrospectively, Altmann marvels at the German’s efficiency.
In 2010 Altmann led a group of 80 students to Auschwitz. They toured the crematorium where her parents’ bodies were burned to ash [Annotator’s Note: Altmann wipes tears from her eyes]. She says she is sure that her father, when faced with death, entreated,”Sh’mah Yisroel!” [Annotator’s Note: translated to English, ‘Hear, [O] Israel’; the expression is a Hebrew profession of faith.]
Judith Altmann’s life in Auschwitz started at 6:30 every morning. It could be very cold, especially when one’s only garment was a little grey dress. Prisoners had to appear at roll call, where they were counted and recounted. Prisoners who became insane during the night were taken away, but the bodies of those who died during the night had to be dragged to roll call to be counted.
Every other day Mengele came to do another selection. If he saw a mother and daughter together, or two sisters together, he would take one out. Eventually, the related prisoners learned they should not stand close to each other. He always asked twins to identify themselves, promising them a better life if they did. This was true, initially, because Mengele was interested in keeping his specimens healthy. Inmates of Altmann’s block were often assigned the task of taking food to Mengele’s hospital. The delivery girls would lick the empty pots they retrieved, and Altmann says that soup for the twins was better than what the rest of the prisoners were issued.
In his hospital, Mengele conducted inhumane experiments on the twins. Among other atrocities, he was trying to change the color of their eyes, making incisions without anesthesia. Those whose bodies were ruined during these experiments were sent to the gas chamber. According to Altmann, the only twins that survived Mengele’s lab were those left behind when the camp was abandoned by the Germans.
The other prisoners’ rations consisted of very little water, and one slice of bread a week. Prisoners had no dish, no spoon. One pot of soup was passed among the prisoners for each to take a sip. Fellow prisoners beat anyone taking more than one sip per pass. They were always hungry.
They were allowed the use of a communal toilet only once a day, but that restriction rarely proved problematic because the prisoners’ intake was so meager. During toilet time, prisoners’ bare backsides were often whipped. Prisoners went for a shower once a week, which always carried with it the fear of being gassed. Occasionally, the prisoners were obliged to sort the confiscated possessions of new arrivals. Sometimes they could scavenge a morsel of food, or an object small enough to secret away in one’s hand. The roll call procedure was repeated every evening. It was difficult to sleep because there were six or seven prisoners per wooden bunk, and no blanket.
The prisoners found some comfort in music. A musically talented one of Altmann’s fellow inmates composed a song in Yiddish about the gas chamber. [Annotator’s Note: Altmann recited the lyrics in a foreign language.] The prisoners would take the opportunity to hum something musical when the guard of the barracks, herself a prisoner, went out. Their Hungarian guard had a boyfriend, and the inmates hand sewed an elegant double-breasted white pantsuit for her to wear for him. It gave the prisoners something to do.
Altmann was there six weeks.
Judith Altmann recounts her stay at Gelsenkirchen, where the prisoners lived in tents. The earliest arrivals claimed the few beds, and everyone else had to sleep on the ground. When the prisoners got to Gelsenkirchen, they were given a bowl and a spoon. In the beginning, prisoners received a bowl of soup, made from turnips and thickened with bran, a slice of bread, and a boiled potato on a daily basis. But rations diminished as the war neared its end.
Every day the inmates were marched to work, wearing wooden clogs that made painful blisters on their feet. SS personnel with guns, a woman on one side, a man on the other, guarded the marchers. The Germans locals who watched them pass believed they were people from the insane asylum. Altmann wanted to retort, but did not dare speak. Anyone who spoke was shot.
They worked every day but Sunday. On that day, they marched around a sports arena to entertain the SS women and men who sat in the bleachers. The head SS man, named Ruck, wielded a long rubber stick that he aimed at the eyes of the prisoners on the field. [Annotator’s Note: Altmann’s word for his rank was indistinct. She spelled Ruck.] Every week several of the women in camp had black eyes.
The prisoners worked very hard, loading and unloading boats, building houses, roads and bunkers. Many grew sick. Those who could not work for more than two days were taken away, and never seen again. The German army guards, more brutal than the SS, goaded the prisoners to work harder. [Annotator’s Note: Altmann spoke forcefully in foreign words.] As the war was coming to an end, there was always the sound of bombs. Altmann said the prisoners didn’t mind dying, but hoped the Germans would suffer more losses before the Allies arrived.
At one of the schools where Altmann regularly speaks to the students, she is always presented a bag of turnips at the end of her visit. Now, she views it as a good vegetable. When she had to eat it every day in Gelsenkirchen, she thought it was terrible.
Altmann was in Gelsenkirchen many months.
Judith Altmann remembers that there were two thousand Czech girls taken from Auschwitz at the time she left. From Gelsenkirchen, the prisoners were marched to Essen. There they were put to work, half of the girls outside, the other half inside, at a Krupp munitions factory [Annotator’s Note: Friedrich Krupp AG]. Altmann worked alongside her niece inside, but the factory was open to the elements, and it was very cold. Sometimes the Germans made a fire, and some guards would allow the prisoners to warm their hands
At one point, a piece of iron fell on Atmann’s left wrist. Ordinarily, a prisoner who could not work was removed. But an SS woman used her own car to transport Altmann to the hospital. When Altmann asked her why, the guard quashed the question. The hospital attendants put a cast on Altmann’s arm. When they left the hospital, the guard stopped off at the factory and told the foreman that she needed a letter from him. She insisted that because Altmann spoke many languages, it was she who translated the foreman’s orders for the Polish girls, the Russian girls, the Hungarian girls, and the Czech girls. The guard warned the foreman that if they lost Altmann, they would lose work. The foreman gave the guard the letter, and Altmann was safe. Altmann said the guard was a good human being, willing to take extra care, and saved her life.
The prisoners were ridden with lice. Altmann said that lice got into the cast she was wearing on her left arm, and when the cast was removed, the lice had eaten up her skin. Regardless, she did go to work every day.
Toward the end of the war, when a group of Italian prisoners was taken someplace else, Altmann was among the girls that inherited the Italians’ barracks. Two girls were assigned to each straw bed, and the prisoners were thrilled. They had not slept in a bed since leaving home. But, when night fell and the lights went out, they learned the beds were infested with bedbugs, and the prisoners slept better on the floor. The girls began praying for the bungalow to burn down, because they could not use it. One day, when they came back from work to the barracks area, they learned that a bomb had hit the building and it was gone. This meant they had to look for other shelter. Finding an unclaimed table, several girls decided to huddle under it, knowing that if it rained or snowed, at least their heads would be covered. And there they slept.
After a time, Altmann does not remember how long, the prisoners were sent on a death march.
Judith Altmann recalled that it took three weeks, mostly travelling on foot, to move from Essen to Bergen-Belsen. The prisoners’ shoes were worn or gone, and most went barefoot. When a prisoner was unable to continue, their loved ones often had to be dragged away from the fallen, so loathe were they to leave someone behind.
Altmann said that at Bergen-Belsen they encountered mountains and mountains of dead bodies, a complete absence of hygiene, and defecation everywhere. The prisoners had to walk over dead bodies. There was no place to sleep except on the floor. The only food was soup, distributed in a different location every day. Only those who reached the pot early got food.
Altmann’s niece was completely jaundiced. She pleaded with Altmann for a morsel of food. Altmann went out and, near a gate, she saw an SS guard walking back and forth, eating a sandwich. Feeling she had nothing to lose, Altmann begged him for a morsel. He shouted at her to disappear, and denounced her in a tirade of bad language. But she saw him drop a little piece of his sandwich in its wrapper, and walk away. Altmann picked up the bite of food, but could not find her niece to present it to her.
Then days came when they did not see any SS. They had gone away. The prisoners decided to go to where the food was kept, hoping to steal some. There they encountered German civilians, who were armed, and they began firing on the prisoners. They killed two of Altmann’s distant cousins.
One morning they woke to the sounds of soldiers dressed in a different uniform. Altman, who spoke English, understood when they said they were British and the prisoners were free. She asked if they were not disguised Germans, to which they responded no.
Judith Altmann said the British soldiers gave the prisoners all the food they had. Unfortunately, that was the wrong thing to do. People died because they consumed too much for their shrunken stomachs. The conditions were desperate. Typhoid was epidemic. Victims had black spots all over their bodies, and a very high fever. Death came to those whose condition persisted for more than two or three days. Tuberculosis was all over.
Altmann was very sick. The British captain asked her to hold on, because she spoke English, and could translate for people who were sick and dying. She was eventually overcome by high fever, and was unconscious for weeks. When she woke, she was delighted to find her niece recovering in same hospital room. Altmann had typhoid, and water in her lungs. Her recovery took almost a year.
She was offered the choice of staying in Germany in a Displaced Persons Camp, or going back to her country of origin, or going to Sweden. A Swedish count, Folke Bernadotte, welcomed many thousands of survivors in Sweden. Altmann’s niece went home to find her brother. She learned that he was killed two days before liberation, for stealing food.
Altmann chose Sweden, because there was nothing left for her in Czechoslovakia. She wanted to go from Sweden to Israel to be a Zionist, but her family was in America. It took her half a year to find them. She mistakenly addressed her letters to Brooklyn, and they were returned. Finally, one of the British officers took her correspondence, and sent it to the British Red Cross, who forwarded it to the American Red Cross. Through their auspices, Altmann’s letters reached their destination.
Her stay in Sweden was unbelievable. The place was clean, people were friendly: smiling, offering food. They brought clothes. Although the refugees were understandably quarantined for four weeks, the refugees came to realize that humanity still existed, when they thought it was gone. One Swedish family wanted to adopt Altmann, even though she was a different faith. Altmann went to school, quickly learned Swedish, and was educated in the field that became her profession, technical writing and design. After a year, Altmann learned that her brothers, Emanuel and Ira had survived.
It took three years for Altmann to be cleared to come to America. There was an immigrant quota, and her uncle had to get affidavits from three people who vouched that she would not be a burden to the country.
Judith Altmann claims that no one loves America more than the survivors, because they know what freedom means. Acclimation to the American culture was not difficult for her, but she noticed that people did not want to know what happened to the prisoners. They asked her why she didn’t run away, or fight her captors. Altmann said the prisoners had no way. Anyone who stood up was killed. Altmann noted that the partisans were the only ones who were able to do some fighting. Prisoners had no power at all, they were nothing. Now, when she speaks to students, she tells them to think for themselves, to treasure this country of ours, and do their best.
Altmann believes Americans knew the extent of the horrors going on in Europe. She pointed out that Bruno Kreisky had come to America to try to reveal the scope of the tragedy, but perhaps Americans just didn’t acknowledge it. [Annotator’s Note: Austria was incorporated into German while Kreisky was there in 1938. Kreisky escaped the Nazi persecution of Austrian Jews and the coming Holocaust by emigrating to Sweden.]
Altmann tells the story of trying to find the sister of a woman she knew in Czechoslovakia by going through the New York phone book. When she eventually reached the woman, Altmann says the sister didn’t care. Altmann found the apathy very disappointing. She didn’t ascribe blame to the United States government, although she thinks Roosevelt could have saved more people, other countries helped more.
Altmann recognizes that there was a depression, and people were afraid of losing their jobs. Altmann, herself, found it difficult to find work in her profession, even though she had an advantage in knowing the English language. She initially took a job in a five-and-ten-cents store in order to become independent. She rented a furnished room, and financially contributed to her brother’s family. She helped her sister-in-laws with the children as well. After getting a better job in a dress shop, she was on a restorative holiday in the country when she met her spouse.
Altmann’s husband learned about her wartime experiences through her discussions at social events with friends. Her children became aware of the extent of her grim history when they were in their early teens, having already heard some stories in passing. While he was a student at Manhattan College, her son Stephen wrote an essay of her life that his professor used as a teaching tool. Her son, Howard, is a Princeton-educated scholar, who keeps all her stories.
Judith Altmann still has terrible dreams. Fortunately, because of her positive outlook, she doesn't allow memories of the past to consume her. Unlike people who still carry hate, and wouldn't put their foot in Germany, Altmann has traveled there repeatedly. She remembers listening to a Berlin radio broadcast of young people discussing their regrets over what their parents did. In 2014, Altmann was on a speaking tour in German universities and schools when a young girl said she was ridden with guilt because her grandfather was an SS man. Altmann responded that the girl was not responsible for her grandfather's sins. The girl thanked Altmann for making her life easier. [Annotator's Note: Altmann slightly smiles.] Altmann feels it's common sense to overcome the horrible experience. At one point, when Altmann was entertaining the wife of a former German soldier, her guest admitted that she knew about, but did not protest, the treatment of the Jews because she was afraid for the safety of her children. Altmann could understand putting family first. She has to use logic. It is extremely important to tell the story because the world gets placid, and some even deny the Holocaust ever happened. It should be remembered. [Annotator's Note: Altmann put stress on the word "remembered".] She thanked the interviewer, and said she felt that what The National WWII Museum is doing will go far. Altmann speaks at schools every year. Members of her audience ask questions, write letters, say she has changed their way of thinking, and pledge to prevent such atrocities happening here or anywhere in the world. Altmann's motto is "Do Not Carry Hate." Hate destroys the hater, not the hated one. People should occupy themselves with goodness, and do whatever they can.