MERIDEN — Students at Wilcox Technical High School learned about the Holocaust from survivor Ruth “Tutti” Lichtenstern Fishman on Monday.
Fishman recalled being held at the same concentration camp as Anne Frank, before Fishman was taken by cattle car to Theresienstadt concentration camp where she was eventually liberated by the Soviet Army.
“Fifteen thousand children passed through Theresienstadt of which 100 survived,” Fishman said. “I am one of the 100 that survived.”
Born in 1936 in Germany, Fishman’s family moved to Amsterdam when she was still a young child. When the German’s invaded Amsterdam, Fishman’s family was forced out of their home and into “Amsterdam East,” a ghetto for Jewish families.
“The round ups started without warning,” Fishman said. “Big trucks would stop in front of these apartment houses and would hurt the Jews outside.”
Soon after Fishman’s family went into hiding in the attic of a family friend. The small room had only one window, which Fishman and her brother were forbidden to go near for fear of being spotted. The family slept during the day to avoid making noise.
In 1943 her family was transported to Westerbork concentration camp, a transit camp where Jews were held before being taken to death camps in Poland.
“Anne Frank was at the camp at the same time I was,” Fishman said. “I didn’t know her. She was six years older.”
Fishman spent her days at the camp playing with other children in the yard. As time went on she noticed her friends would disappear without warning.
While at Westerbork, her father and other metal workers were able to start a scrap metal sorting operation. which allowed them to escape death. Members of the resistance would mix other metals into the sorted scrap metal in an attempt to weaken German airplanes and weapons being forged from the metal.
One day in 1944, Fishman’s father brought her a doll and placed money and other valuables inside the doll’s head, telling Fishman to keep the doll safe at all costs as the money could be used in an emergency. Fishman never let the doll out of her sight, carrying it with her into adulthood. The doll is now on display at the University of Hartford’s Holocaust exhibit.
After 9 months in Westerbork, Fishman’s family was crowded into cattle cars and taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic. During the trip, Fishman said she was in the same car as Cabaret actor Max Ehrlich, who told jokes to keep the passengers spirits up on the three day journey. Ehrlich would eventually be killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Conditions at Theresienstadt were significantly worse than Westerbork, Fishman said, with captives living on starvation rations of moldy bread and soup.
“The bugs, the illnesses were unbelievable,” Fishman said. “People died left and right.”
Fishman’s family was able to survive because her father smuggled food from the camp’s root cellar where he work, hiding vegetables in his pants.
”If he had been discovered, he would have been shot right then and there,” Fishman said.
Eventually orders were issued for all men ages 16 to 55 in the camp to be transported to Auschwitz, including her father. Fishman remembers her father leaning over and kissing her goodbye on her bunk bed. However, in a twist of fate Fishman’s father was able to avoid deportation and remain at the camp after showing guards his passport, which distinguished him as a skilled laborer. The Soviet Union liberated the camp in May 1945.
Fishman’s story is dramatized in the novel “Tutti’s Promise,” a fictional account by her daughter Heidi FIshman. Heidi Fishman told students that while the Holocaust may seem like a distant part of the history, the atrocities carried out are the consequences of discrimination.
“As soon as we look at someone else and see them as an other or less than ourselves, we have a problem,” Heidi Fishman told students. “That is why we study the Holocaust.”
Wilcox Senior Ashley Gudrian said hearing Fishman tell her story was eye-opening.
“It wasn’t just a story you hear in history,” said Gudrian. “That was real.”
“It was like, wow, she lived it,” Senior Brook Agro said.
The program was organized by English teacher MIchelle Amann-Wojenski and library media specialist Santina Scalia , who attended the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Musuem’s 2017 Belfer National Conference for Educators in Washington D.C. this summert.
“I think it was a very important experience to hear the holocaust survivors story in her own words,” Amann-Wojenski said. “This will be an experience they will never forget.”
In a short question and answer period after Fishman’s story, one student asked Fishman how she was able to lead a normal life after the war.
”I believe your inner feelings, hate and not being able to forgive, can cause cancer and all all sorts of terrible things,” Fishman said. “You have to be able to move on. I have not forgotten, but I have forgiven.”