Holocaust survivor to share her story at East Ridge
No matter how often Anita Dittman talks about her Holocaust days, she breaks down in tears every time she shares the story.
As a little girl, she was told she had a wonderful future as a ballerina. She came from a wealthy family, lived in a nice, suburban home with her parents and sister.
"Then Adolf Hitler came to power and things began to change," she said.
She was tortured, sexually harassed, starved and forced to work for the Nazis.
The 84-year-old Brainerd woman will visit East Ridge High School Monday, Oct. 17 to share her inspiring story that fills a book titled "Trapped in Hitler's Hell."
Born and raised in Germany, she thought she was "forever trapped in Hitler's hell," but after years of oppression and persecution, she survived and made it to the United States in 1946.
Dittman was born to an atheist father and a "somewhat of an orthodox Jew" mother.
"After a few months of Hitler's takeover, my father left us because he had a very prestigious job and he didn't want to be married to a Jew," she said.
Life began to quickly change. Dittman no longer had the nice home. With her mother and sister, the three moved to a smaller apartment.
She had one thing going for her at the age of 6: her ballet talent.
After her first ever solo performance, she received rave reviews. But at the end of the review she said the newspaper wrote "The German people wish to no longer be entertained by a Jew."
"I saw my hopes and dreams crumbling ... I thought my world was coming to an end."
It didn't matter that Dittman and her family had no Jewish upbringing whatsoever, she said.
She was discriminated against at school because she wasn't an Aryan. She had "a super Nazi teacher," she said, "who made my life absolutely miserable."
She was later suspended from school because of her heritage.
In fifth grade, she learned of the different concentration camps the Nazis were sending people to in the beginning of 1938. She feared her family would be next.
They were kicked out of their apartment and forced to live with multiple families crammed in a very small building, she said.
"They were cleansing the apartments from all Jewish influence," Dittman said.
The Nazis burned synagogues, smashed the store fronts of Jewish businesses and "dragged old men out by their beards and put them in concentration camps."
Her sister escaped the country when she got a visa out of Germany to England, but Dittman's visa along with her mother's were lost in the mail.
They had high hopes after her sister obtained her ticket out of oppression, but just a few days later, she found out that no foreign mail was allowed into Germany.
"And we were forever trapped in Hitler's hell and that's the name of the book," Dittman said.
Hard labor camp
At the age of 15, when Dittman went back to school, she remembers the principal coming into her classroom with a letter from the Gestapo - the official secret police of Nazi Germany.
"Due to your Jewish heritage, you're permanently suspended from school," the letter read.
Around the fall of the same year, Dittman was drafted into heavy factory labor with her mother.
"Many times I was ordered by the boss to carry 100 pounds by myself ... We worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week."
Still, she continued to say it could've been worst.
"We just thanked God that we were still free," she said.
That didn't last long, however.
The Nazis took her mom to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, a holding station for Jews on their way to death camps.
She was alone for about seven months, working for the Nazis without her mother by her side this time.
Then she came home to find a familiar brown envelope from the Gestapo.
"Due to my heritage, I would be sent to slave labor camp," she said of the letter.
Dittman didn't want to leave without telling her mother. Because she occasionally sent her food in Theresienstadt, she came up with a clever, yet dangerous idea.
She bought a loaf of German rye bread, took off the label, wrote a note that said she'd be leaving and not to worry, stuck it inside the bread, then put the wrapping back on.
Eleven months later, the loaf arrived to her mother filled with mold, which ironically is what protected it from being eaten by the Nazis.
"If they found that note, they would've killed my mother," Dittman said, adding, "She was so hungry that she scraped off all the mold and ate the bread. And she found the note."
When Dittman was forced to work in a camp farther from her hometown, she was told she should be honored she was working for the leader of Germany.
She was ordered to dig ditches intended as tank traps in case the Russians invaded the country.
"This is supposed to be an honor?" Dittman recalled thinking, "Yeah, how ironic," she added with a smirk.
She then moved to another location for "mixed breeds" and was told once the work was done they'd be shipped to Auschwitz, a death camp.
"No matter how cold we were, no matter how hungry we were ... we were just grateful that we were not dead in Auschwitz," Dittman said.
In February of 1945, Dittman said she was forced to march through snow and ice - as a method of torture - to the point that her foot and leg got infected, but she couldn't dare tell anyone about it.
Then after marching home from work one day, Dittman said she saw farmers in the village running with their kids and livestock, horse drawn wagons everywhere and just a "strange smell in the air."
"We could see the night sky was all lit up bright red."
Soldiers were all over the place, standing firm with their rifles in hand. The women's camp was locked up so tight; nobody would've been able to escape.
The next morning, the women were separated from the men and they were whisked off on horse drawn wagons to another country-side camp surrounded by electric fencing.
Somehow, Dittman said she and four others got away.
Three of them found refuge. The following evening, Dittman had to be hospitalized for her leg infection.
Though the nurse didn't know that Dittman was half Jewish because of her blond hair, she later found out her true heritage while she was under anesthesia during surgery.
"I never was even given one aspirin to kill the pain," she said.
Things changed when Russia invaded the town, Dittman said. Russia did a good job of liberating the camps but its soldiers misbehaved.
Two Russian soldiers attacked Dittman, who was 17 at the time.
"They took off my clothes and they were gonna help themselves to me," she said, as tears ran down her face.
But when they saw the bandage on her leg, blood and puss flowing out of the wound, they were so disgusted that they stopped, she added.
"God put those wounds there for my protection, so I wouldn't be raped," Dittman said, crying.
Eventually Dittman found a place to live in the town of Asch between Czechoslovakia and Germany. Then she went looking for her mother in Prague.
"I saw my mother again on the 7th of June of '45 and a year later on the 7th of June of '46 we sailed to America," she said.
With 900 passengers on board, they sailed through a stormy ocean for 11 days until they got to New York.
"When we saw the Statue of Liberty, we all broke down," Dittman said. "After so many years of oppression, finally, finally to be free, it was unbelievable."
She said nobody on the ship said a word when they got to Ellis Island. She heard sobs of relief.
"It was a dream we had for so many years, to be freed. It was amazing."
If you go
Listen to more of Dittman's story from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17 at the East Ridge High School auditorium. The event is sponsored by South Washington County Community Education. Tickets are $9 for adults, $5 for middle and high school students and $2 for elementary age.