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Stamford Holocaust Survivor Says 'Not Hating' Helped Her Live

Judith Altmann speaking to a group of area students in 2010. Photo Credit: File
Left to right: Connecticut Survivors Lou Reens, Judith Altmann, Agnes Vertes, Paula Reens in front. Photo Credit: Submitted
Judith Altmann will be speaking April 20 at Fairfield University. Photo Credit: Submitted

STAMFORD, Conn. -- When Judith Altmann, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor and longtime Stamford resident, tells her story, audiences are always clamoring for more. 

Altmann, who was born in Jasina, Czechoslovakia, was sent to a host of concentration and labor camps, including Auschwitz, Essen, Gelsenkirchen and Bergen Belsen, with a death march along the way.

She tells her stories at various organizations. Her next talk is Sunday, April 19 at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and Monday, April 20 at 4:30 p.m. at Fairfield University's Egan Chapel (Admission is free; call 203-254-4000 ext. 2066).

She will also speak at the Yom HaShoah event sponsored by the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center and the Westchester Jewish Council at noon Thursday at the Garden of Remembrance, 148 Martine Ave., opposite the Galleria in White Plains, N.Y.

Sharing her story is "very, very important," Altmann said, especially because she never thought the day would come.

Her two biggest messages: "Learn all you can because no one can take it away from you," and "If you see any injustice in the world, stand up. Don't just say it doesn’t concern me," she said. "If more people had done that, more Jews would be alive today." 

Speaking six languages helped save her, she said. That, and possibly her youth -- she was 14 during the Occupation and able to do the hard labor required under the "Work Will Set You Free" Nazi motto.

Her life until 1939, she said, "was fantastic," until restrictions and edicts were imposed on Jews. In 1944, life forever changed at 6:30 a.m. "a day after Passover," when a group of German SS guards and Hungarian gendarmes knocked on her family's door and gave them a half-hour to leave.

After six weeks in a ghetto, she, her parents along with about 25 relatives were sent in cattle cars to Auschwitz, crammed together for four-and-a-half days like animals.

Upon arrival, Altmann 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." 

She vividly remembers her father's last words to her before they were parted: "Judy, you will live."

This, she said, sustained her, giving her strength through the hard years to follow. She endured building bunkers and roads in Auschwitz and working in an munitions factory in Essen before being led on a death march to Bergen-Belsen. 

When a piece of iron fell on her wrist in the munitions factory, she was saved by an SS woman who got her a cast, rather than putting her with the other disabled people -- "a sure fire way to the gas chamber," said Altmann. Instead, the officer told the doctor, "I need this girl. She speaks six languages and if she's not here, the work won't get done."

Altmann was liberated in May 1945 from Bergen-Belsen and soon moved to Sweden, where she went to school and became a technical writer and designer -- and learned another language. In 1948, she moved to the U.S. 

After marrying and working in New York City, she and her husband moved to Stamford and raised two sons.

And although she suffered, Altmann said not carrying a well of hate inside of her helped to save her.

"I certainly have all the reasons in the world to hate," she said. "But hate destroys you, not them. Use your energy for good things and for better things."

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Go here for stories on events in the area; here for another local survivor's story.

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