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A Tale of Two Women

A Holocaust survivor from Fairfield County films the story of another Holocaust survivor 

By Stacey Dresner

Agnes Vertes and her grandchildren, Talia and David Rockmacher.

WESTPORT – Agnes Vertes, producer of two award-winning documentaries about the Holocaust, was done making any more films. Or so she said.

But her friend Judith Altmann’s life story was just too compelling not to be told to a national audience.

So Vertes went back to work. The result is “Judy, You will Live,” Vertes’ inspiring documentary about Altmann’s remarkable survival after being interned at Auschwitz and working in two German slave labor camps during World War II. It is a story of survival and resilience. 

Now, on Sunday, Nov. 17, both Vertes and Altmann will be honored at the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County’s 2019 Heritage Award Celebration, “Embracing Human Dignity and Resilience.”

“The event will honor these two Holocaust survivors who have dedicated their lives to educating children in Holocaust and genocide education,” says Peter Lilienthal, co-chair of the Heritage Award Celebration.  “Agnes is an award-winning filmmaker, and Judy has spoken [about her experience] to over 100,000 kids in hundreds of schools. The event is focused on really recognizing the wonderful work they have done in their lives.”

Guest speakers at the event will be Toni Boucher, the Wilton State Senator who introduced what would become Connecticut’s law mandating Holocaust and genocide education in Connecticut schools, and Michael Bloom, executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), which also played a central role in that effort. Rev. Mark Lingle of Stamford’s St. Francis Episcopal Church and head of the area’s Interfaith Council will also speak.

Laureen Mody, a teacher in the local school system, will introduce Altmann when she receives her honor; Vertes will be introduced by her granddaughter, Talya Rachmacher.

“Her granddaughter represents the next generation,” says Lilienthal. “So it’s the concept of ‘l’dor v’dor,’ generation to generation.”

“She is an extraordinary person”

Judith Altmann in front of a piece of art in German honoring the Jews who were forced to work in slave labor camps during the war.

“I was a volunteer interviewer for the Shoah Foundation and I was told to interview [Judith Altman]. Ever since we’ve been really good friends,” Vertes says, describing how she and Altmann met 20 years ago. 

Altmann, Vertes says, who turned 95 last month, “is more with it than many people in their 50s. She is an extraordinary person.”

“She was in the ghetto from which she was taken in a cattle car to Auschwitz. She survived Auschwitz and was taken to a work camp in Germany in Gelsenkirchen working for Krup. Then she was taken to another work camp in Essen, Germany, also a Krup factory,” Vertes says. 

As the Americans drew closer to Essen, Altmann, then 19, and the other prisoners were taken on a death march to Bergen-Belsen.

In May 1945, she was liberated by the British Army and immigrated to Sweden, where she lived until 1948. She then came to the United States, settling in the Bronx before moving to Stamford with her husband, Kurt, in 1975.

A frequent speaker on the Holocaust, she has shared her story at schools and universities throughout Connecticut and Westchester County. She is vice president of the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut and vice president of fundraising for the Brandeis Women’s Committee. She speaks seven languages and has served as a Russian translator for the Russian immigrants in the Russian Resettlement Program. 

“Ever since I have known her, she has been talking in schools and universities and everywhere about her experiences,” Vertes says. “Fordham University was so impressed by her that they gave her a doctorate in humane letters. That’s what made me make the film, because her story shows you the whole experience of the Holocaust, everything.”

In 2014, both Altmann and Vertes attended a convention of the World Federation of Child Holocaust Survivors and Descendants in Berlin, Germany. A newspaper in Essen contacted Altmann and asked if she could also come to the location of the two labor camps she had worked in to talk about her experiences.

Altmann told them Vertes was in the process of making a documentary and asked that Vertes come to Essen as well. The newspaper provided a camera crew for Vertes free of charge so that she could film her friend’s journey.

 

For the record

Vertes began talking about her own experiences as a hidden child when she was interviewed for the Fortunoff Video Archives at Yale University. Born Agnes Katz in Budapest, Vertes was only four years old when the Germans occupied Hungary. She and her two-year-old sister were hidden in several places during the war – with relatives in the countryside, in orphanages and foster homes. They pretended to be Protestant, changing their names and learning Christian prayers.

After the war, Vertes and her sister were reunited with their parents and, after living in Communist Hungary for several years, the family escaped over the border into Austria. From there, they made their way to New York, settling in the Bronx. She met her husband, Michael, also a Jewish refugee from Hungary, while attending Hunter College. They settled in Weston where they raised their children.

Vertes eventually became involved with the Child Holocaust Survivors of Connecticut and now serves as its president. The organization educates the public, particularly high school students and teachers about the plight of hidden children and other survivors during the war. It was while speaking to a group of teachers that she decided to become a filmmaker.

”I was talking to them and I thought, ‘we’re not going to be here forever. This should be recorded,’” she recounts.

Vertes’ first film, ”One Out of Ten,” tells the story of eight people who were children during the Holocaust and their survival stories. That film won awards from several film festivals. Her second film, “Passport to Life,” tells the story of six brave diplomats who saved Jews in Hungary during the war. The film won the 2003 Telly Award, the 2003 Aurora Award and was a finalist in the New York Film Festival.

Traveling back in time

“Judy, you will live” was one of the last things Altmann’s father said to her when they were being arrested by the Nazis. And so, it seemed a fitting title for Vertes’ film.

“She filmed all the places we went,” Altmann says of Vertes. “They showed us where the camp was. You would not recognize it [from the way it looked in 1944 and 1945]. The city is completely changed. But I remembered certain things. I remember one house that we walk past when we went to work. There was a little boy there, and now he was a man and I spoke to him.”

In one scene shot in Essen, Altmann talks about how horrible it was working in the factory.

One day, hot metal that she had to transfer to another worker fell on her wrist and broke it. She was afraid that due to her injury that she would be taken back to Auschwitz – “because if you couldn’t work, they took you to the gas chambers,” Vertes says.

Thinking she would be killed, Altmann said goodbye to everybody. But that night the SS woman who was supervising the workers woke her up and said, “Don’t ask me any questions.” She took Altmann to the nearest hospital, where they set the bone. She told the overseer that Altmann spoke several languages so they needed her. It saved her life.

Later, when the factories were bombed by the Allies, more than 200 young Jewish girls were killed. Fortunately, Altmann was not there at the time, but her friend Yetti was.

“We had to gather their bones and put them in a mass grave which is still there,” Altmann says.

They visited the cemetery on this most recent trip.

“I saw where my closest friend was buried…I cried. I was hysterical about it. They said every year on this date we will come and light a candle for her for you,” Altmann says.

“I’ve been to Auschwitz and I took 80 students on the March of the Living, so it wasn’t the first time. When my husband was alive, we traveled to Europe and Germany often. But going back to Gelsenkirchen and Essen was closure in a way. I spoke in many colleges and high schools and middle schools and the reaction from the young people is like here in America. One girl, a beautiful girl about 18, came over crying. She said, ‘My grandfather was an SS man, and I carry the guilt.’ I said, ‘you are not responsible for your grandfather’s sins.’ It was a positive thing. You see what the next and third generations are doing.”

Lilienthal says that events like the Heritage Awards aim to increase awareness in hopes of continuing the work of survivors like Altmann and Vertes. The Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County is working with Voices of Hope, the Anti-Defamation League and the Human Rights Education Center in Westchester to make sure that the stories of Holocaust survivors are heard by future generations.

“When any one of these Holocaust survivors speak people are so moved by what they have to say and the experience that they endured,” he says. “But the question is, ‘Now what will they do?’ It can not only be on the survivors. We need a full-court press by the community in general. We are partnering with these organizations to help us continue the work of these survivors.”

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