Bella Altura Recalls Holocaust Survival

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    Never to Forget; Never Again

    “Those of us who survived the Holocaust in the Second World War keep a simple promise,” explains Bella Altura, author of “Golden America: A Memoir,” to a packed room at the FMB Public Library on Monday afternoon, March 20. “We preach ‘never to forget; never again!’ Unfortunately, there are a lot of hate groups who will tell you the Holocaust never occurred and, sadly, in many parts of the world, this is happening again already.” While the room was full, you could hear a pin drop during Bella’s riveting presentation.

    Bella bemoans the “beheadings and drownings and people being burned alive in cages in Islamic lands and all over Europe, and the addition of many of these tragedies happening on videotape makes it all the more horrific. Hopefully, though we can’t really be sure, this will not happen in America. Antisemitism is rising again all over Europe, in the Middle East and, unfortunately and I would never have believed it, even here in United States.”

    A photo of Bella as a child with her mother. Photo from “Golden America: A Memoir.”

    She calls the Holocaust “a time of utter inhumanity, when Germany, a country of civilized people, did uncivilized, unspeakable things to others born to a certain religion who could not defend themselves. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, observed your religion or not, or even if you were in the German Army during the First World War. The Jews were rounded up and first told to stay in the ghetto, then eventually put in cattle cars in such large numbers that they pushed up against each other, without food or water or facilities for days, until they arrived at a place where they put the women and children and some men in gas chambers and murdered them. Some children were put into open pits and burned to death right in front of me.”

    Those who the Nazis let live “stood naked for hours, in terrible conditions, with stale bread and dirty water, and soup from unwashed potato peels that caused dysentery and typhoid and other diseases. You were totally dehumanized, living for another piece of stale bread, and working for hours in wooden shoes that did not fit so you bleed and they infected your feet, yet still you suffered savage beatings, with many people dying. Others were victims of experiments you would not do to any animal, they were so cruel and inhumane; I am often still haunted today by what I saw and heard.”

    A Fanatical Man

    Bella explained, “I was born in a small town in Germany where my parents lived comfortably. I was an only child, and I adored my Father and Mother, who was a fantastic cook, kept an immaculate home, and was a professional embroiderer. All was ordinary and going well, then things drastically changed due to a fanatical man who preached a new World Order, with Germans the pure and superior race. For that to happen, however, Germans must kill all Jews, Gypsies, the disabled and other minorities.”

    bella altura, holocaust survivor, island sand paper, fort myers beach news
    Bella’s father in an internment camp near Lugano, Switzerland. Photo from “Golden America: A Memoir.”

    Calling her Mother “the clever one in our family, she went to Belgium the first week of November 1938 to obtain papers to allow us to live there. My Father, however, did not believe bad things could happen to us, as he was outgoing and had many German friends, and he could not think they could be talked into behaving the way we heard things were going; in fact, he laughed about it, calling the stories vicious rumors. As it turned out, the stories were so true he eventually became the only one of his six siblings to survive; the Germans murdered all the rest with their families. Mom’s sister was cleverest of all, as she came to the United States during this time. Eventually, one of her brothers and a nephew who survived the concentration camps joined her, but the rest her family was gone as well. My uncle was a broken man who never got over surviving without his wife and children, who he mourned the rest of his life.”

    In uncanny irony, Bella’s mother was in Belgium on November 9, on what became known as The Kristallnacht, or “Crystal Night,” when Nazis attacked German Jews: “Forty SS members broke into our apartment during the night. They beat my Father in front of me – I cried and cried and cried – while they screamed at me, ‘you dirty Jew urchin, if you cry we will beat you’; I was 7 years old. Fortunately, I had a Christian nanny who they left alone, and she dragged me away. When they were done beating Father, two policemen came out of nowhere, kicking him some more, then they took him and me to prison. The next day, my nanny got me out, even though I did not want to leave Father who was barely alive, and she took me to her house where Mom found me. I was so traumatized that I completely lost my ability to speak. Every single thing we possessed was smashed to bits, with Father being sent to the Dachau concentration camp.”

    We Were Lucky

    For the next decade, “we lived in fear, but we were lucky because Mother successfully freed Father from Dachau, as this was still possible at that time. We wandered from Belgium to France to Switzerland, with professional smugglers moving us on moonless nights. In France, we tried to blend in, but sadly the French told the Germans there were Jews there, so smugglers again moved us to a village high in the Alps Mountains, walking with another group of Jews for three nights in the snow and ice. On the third night, French police stopped us and took all the adults with either no kids or teenagers back to the Germans, but we were lucky again because I was just 10 years old. Once we reached Switzerland, we were reasonably safe because that was a neutral country. I don’t know how, but we managed to stay one step ahead of the Germans, barely escaping three times.”

    The war finally ended, “thanks to the Americans. Switzerland would not keep us, but we obtained papers to come to United States; America was a wonder and like heaven on earth, and it seemed things were good again, with Mom taking care of the home, Father making a comfortable living, and I in school following my dream since I was 9 years old to study Biology.”

    But things did not turn out that way. “We suffered so much anxiety and stress; today we define this as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and all three of us could not properly cope in the beginning. On top of that, Father was so naive and trusting that shortly after we arrived in America, someone talked him into investing the small amount he was able to save and a week later he lost it all. Mother still seemed so strong-willed and worked in a bakery 7 days a week, but a few months later her health failed and she died.”

    That broke Bella. “I could no longer cope and I never got over losing Mother. I quickly took care of Father’s house, as well as attending college fulltime where I did well, but three weeks before graduation Father announced he was remarrying, throwing me into total chaos: I felt Father was rejecting me, as I was too young to realize people at that age needed companionship, and I could not possibly stay in that house with a stranger, so the only way out for me was to commit suicide and I tried it unsuccessfully several times, until Father put me into a facility and promised not to marry. I was assigned a psychiatrist, riddled with guilt over stopping him from marrying, and not doing enough, causing Mother to pass away.”

    Sticker Shock

    It took Bella months to work through this, before getting a biochemistry lab job “that I immediately loved,” eventually earning her Master’s and PhD “that could only happen in this fantastic country. After five years, I became a full-fledged citizen with the right to be free, and everything seemed like a miracle to me. The main thing I was most proud of, and still am today, is I could vote, and every time I still vote, it is a miracle, and I walk around with my ‘I Voted’ sticker for days, and in our house I have a lamp covered with those stickers as I keep all of them!”

    That is all the sad part, says Bella! “So many good things happened in America: I have a husband of 55 years, and a wonderful career as a scientist, and we have a daughter who followed in our shoes as a scientist, and two grandchildren. These things could not happen except in this unique country, so vote with your brains for candidates who will maintain our precious freedoms. Each of us has a sacred duty to do that, for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, now and always.”

    Bella Altura’s book, “Golden America: A Memoir” is available at online booksellers.

     

    Gary Mooney