As Judith Altmann, a Holocaust survivor, and Alan Moskin, a combat soldier on the front lines, shared their personal experiences during World War II and how the Holocaust affected them, they left an indelible mark on Bronxville Middle School eight graders. During several Zoom sessions on March 12, they urged the students to remember the past, stand up to injustice and not carry hate in their hearts.
“We are grateful to Judy Altmann and Alan Moskin for their honesty, openness and ability to help us understand this crucial and difficult part of our collective history,” English teacher Alyssa Dioguardi said.
Born in 1924 in Jasina, Czechoslovakia, which was invaded by the Nazis in 1939, Altmann spent several years living under Nazi occupation. In 1944, she and her family were crammed into a cattle car and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she came face to face with Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death” for determining who lived and who died. Altmann recalled the last words she heard from her father after her family had just arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp. His words, “Judy, you will live,” gave her strength while she endured the most horrific acts of hatred in her life.
Altmann also spoke about the unimaginable suffering she endured at Auschwitz, as well as the living conditions at the Essen and Gelsenkirchen labor camps, and surviving a “death march” that ended in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She also shared how her education and ability to speak multiple languages helped her survive as a translator. She was liberated by the British in 1945, and since then, she has dedicated her life to sharing her story with young people in hope of inspiring them to stand up for injustices.
“The opportunity to hear from a Holocaust survivor is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students. It was a priceless experience not only for our students, but also for the teachers,” science teacher Jennifer Zopp said. “As we listened to Judy’s story on the anniversary of our school’s COVID shutdown, it was a reminder that our strife today is real, but nothing compared to the struggles of those who miraculously survived this chapter of history. Her optimism and positivity were felt through the screen and transpired to all of us that had the opportunity to listen to her story.”
Born in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1926, Moskin was drafted into military service at the age of 18 and served in the United States Army during World War II. He shared his experiences as a combat soldier on the front lines, explaining to students that war is nothing like what is depicted on TV, in movies or in video games. Moskin described how he and his company stumbled upon the Gunskirchen concentration camp in 1945 and recalled his interaction with a survivor of the camp he liberated.
Students said that as the last generation to hear Moskin’s story, they felt empowered to make a change and work toward ending violence. Altmann’s message of not carrying hate in their hearts also resonated with them.
“When you hate someone, it doesn’t only hurt the person you hate, but also you,” eighth grader Isabel Haller said. “And when [Judith Altmann] said that she didn’t hate the Nazis for what they did, it somehow made sense to me. Hatred is what drove the terrible genocide to occur in the first place, so more hatred wouldn’t make you feel better, but probably worse.”
As part of their studies, the students read Elie Wiesel’s memoir, “Night,” which documents the author’s experience and survival at the Auschwitz concentration camp. They reflected on his experience, connected on an emotional level with his writing and began to understand how literature can give voice to the silenced to bring about lasting change. They also watched Roberto Benigni’s movie, “Life Is Beautiful,” which offers a look at the forces that motivate and drive human survival.
Afterwards, the students studied various psychological influences that may shape an individual’s behavior and discussed how these behaviors may change depending on any given setting they are in. The examined Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” antiracism experiment, Stanley Milgram’s response to authority, Darley and Latane’s bystander effect and Solomon Asch’s experiment on conformity. The eighth graders were challenged to think critically about how these forces potentially contributed to the behavior of individuals and groups during World War II. To close their unit of study, the students researched what Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, calls the Righteous, or people who helped to defy psychological forces and provide humanitarian aid to anyone who was suffering at the hands of the Nazis across Europe.
“Paired with the unique opportunity to hear from Holocaust survivors through the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, the students were asked to think about their responsibility to history as citizens, community members, and how compassion and kindness may drive their own behaviors moving forward,” Dioguardi said.