Generations pass down the Holocaust story, including in Fort Worth

Posted Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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For the first-grade girl named Leslie, the playground antics seemed just that, a silly and harmless way for a few boys to spend recess. That day in the 1960s, at the elementary school in Fort Worth, the boys started jutting their hands in the air and shouting “Heil, Hitler!” They laughed. Leslie had no idea what the words and gestures meant.

At home after school she found her mother, Brigitte Altman, sitting at her bedroom desk. Leslie began to describe the playground silliness.

“My mother had always been and still is mostly very calm, not easily upset,” the daughter, Leslie Magee, remembered last week. “But she was just horrified when I mentioned this to her. She stopped what she was doing and she pulled me aside.”

Mother and daughter sat down on the bed and Brigitte spoke of a distant place, a small European country on the Baltic Sea called Lithuania. The country was occupied by the Germans during World War II. Brigitte had been a Jewish teenager then, herded by the Nazis into a squalid ghetto of 40,000 people.

She was one of only a few hundred to survive. Brigitte’s mother died of pneumonia and malnutrition. Scores of her uncles, aunts, cousins and friends were ordered to dig their own graves and then shot en masse. Brigitte’s father was sent to the concentration camp at Dachau. Hitler, the mother explained, was the German leader behind it all, the man who tried to kill all the Jews.

“She was aghast and mortified, horrified and understandably, because this was many years after the Holocaust and in Fort Worth, Texas, something like this was going on on the playground,” Leslie said. “I was shocked, and then there was this feeling of being deeply saddened because someone that I loved so much, my mother, had suffered so much.

“It hurt me to know that she had been put through such tragedy and loss,” she said. “I carried that with me always.”

Decades later, Leslie faced the decision of when to tell her own daughter, 11-year-old Lauren. The girl and her grandmother have shared a profound bond from the moment of Lauren’s birth.

“My hand was forced,” Leslie said. “Lauren was in kindergarten. I heard they were going to discuss the Holocaust in Sunday school. I told her there was a lot of sadness and death and that her grandmother had been involved in it.”

Leslie has since tried to spare her daughter from the most haunting details. But Lauren seems to understand, one reason she has always doted on her grandmother.

“I’m very sad for what she went through,” Lauren said last week. “And I’m very grateful that she’s still here today. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her anymore.”

Horrors passed down

They are complex feelings familiar to thousands around the world in what is now an intergenerational story. Scores of studies have documented how the trauma and horror did not just afflict one generation, that it was often passed down by survivors to their offspring. But seven decades after the war, there are a third generation and a fourth.

Descendants remember the horror but are increasingly inclined to talk about something else, a new sense of healing and pride among the ones who came after.

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List was a cultural watershed in that regard. The Academy Award-winning film told the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who outwitted the Nazis to save 1,100 Jews from almost certain death in Auschwitz. The film featured many grotesque scenes from the concentration camp, German barbarism and, in a movie largely shot in black and white, the iconic image of one victim: the little girl in the red dress.

Spielberg succeeded in placing the Holocaust at the heart of American popular culture, where it could not be ignored. One byproduct has been the willingness of survivors and their children to coax old ghosts into the open. For decades now, survivors and their descendants have been coming together around the world in formal and informal ways, talking of the past, looking to the future.

One new group is called Generations, organized by the Dallas Holocaust Museum. Its mission statement says Generations is “committed to educate our community and future generations by preserving the memories of the past and keeping our families’ voices alive.”

A handful of people were expected for its first meeting in June. More than a hundred showed up: survivors, second, third and in a few cases, fourth generations.

“There was such excitement,” said Arlington artist Julie Meetal, the daughter of Holocaust survivors and a founder of Generations. “There was such a need for second and third generations to get together and have their voices heard.”

And to share a new sense of hope.

Leslie Magee has carried the sadness from that day in first grade. But she has watched her mother soldier on through life with a remarkable equanimity. She has witnessed firsthand the power of a child, her child, to vanquish old horrors.

“My mother just beamed like I had never seen before,” Leslie said of the day of Lauren’s birth. “Not that this one child could replace all the lives that were lost. But she represented hope in the future, and happiness, and the continuation of her family.”

Oral histories

After Schindler’s List, interviewers from Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation fanned out across the globe, capturing the testimonies of thousands of survivors. Brigitte Altman told her story on a summer day in 1997, speaking to the camera for nearly three hours in her Fort Worth home.

She was an only child, born Aug. 15, 1924, in Memel, Lithuania. Her father was a wealthy businessman.

“My mother tried to teach me the social graces,” Brigitte said. “I hope I did not disappoint her.”

In the 1930s, her parents talked at dinner about what was happening to Jewish relatives in nearby Germany. The family tried to flee to the United States or Canada but could not obtain visas. Eventually they lost everything.

Soon after the Nazi occupation began in 1941, Brigitte’s family was forced into the infamous Kovno ghetto, an enclave with primitive homes and no running water, surrounded by barbed wire. Food was scarce. Brigitte’s mother suffered a stroke. The intentions of the Germans became clear.

The day in late October 1941 was known as the Great Action.

“That was the most horrifying of all,” Brigitte said in her 1997 interview. “Ten thousand people were taken away. At six or seven in the morning, every person in the ghetto, including the infirm, was to come to a place of assembly called Democracy Square. My mother was still an invalid and I remember putting some lipstick on her cheeks to give her a healthier appearance.

“We bundled up. It was a mixture of rain and sleet coming down,” she recalled. “The German sergeant … he may have been eating a sandwich while he was directing people to the right and left with his whip. I forget which side was life and which side was death, I had become so numb standing there and waiting for our turn to pass before him.

“But apparently he was not looking at us,” she said. “The three of us, my mother in the middle, we were kind of holding her by the elbows. We made it to the good side. The other side had small children, the elderly. Wailing and crying from family members that had been forcibly separated.”

Brigitte’s mother died in 1942. A few months after, Brigitte watched the Nazis collect thousands of young children.

“That was the day the famous Children’s Action took place,” she said. “That was really the catalyst that prompted my father to try and get me out of the ghetto.”

Brigitte left the ghetto on a work detail and slipped away, aided by her father’s former bookkeeper, a gentile woman who took her in. Brigitte spent the last years of the war hidden on a distant farm.

“The day I was liberated it was summer,” she said. “I had gone to one of the outer buildings. It was still dark outside. I heard a very slight noise behind me. I turned around to see who or what it was. It was a Russian soldier. I was startled but overjoyed.”

Somehow her father had survived Dachau. He and his daughter were reunited in Italy.

“I was watching the path, waiting for my dad to come,” Brigitte said. “He had changed so much. He looked like my grandfather. We hugged. We had tears in our eyes.”

In 1949, Brigitte came to live with relatives in Dallas. A few years later she married a dashing American war hero, Fredric Altman. The couple settled in a quiet, leafy neighborhood in south Fort worth. Leslie was the youngest of their four children, the couple’s only daughter.

So many questions

After the first-grade day on the playground, as she sat on the bed with her mother, Leslie’s questions came tumbling out.

How did it get to the point where peoples’ rights were taken away? Why didn’t people fight back?

“She explained that it happened over time and it was a process,” Leslie said. “People thought they could live with certain inconveniences. They thought this would pass.”

Brigitte never brought up the Holocaust after that but would answer Leslie’s occasional questions. The daughter was always reluctant to ask them.

“It was very disturbing to me,” Leslie said. “And my mom was different from other moms I know. She was never carefree. I never saw her carefree and relaxed. She never laughed. I never heard my mother laugh until I was an adult. To this day when I make her laugh I feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.”

Growing up, Brigitte insisted that her children live by simple admonitions. Never take life for granted. Never fritter away a day. Her daughter took those things to heart, while trying to distance herself from the horror of her family history.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, as I was growing up, the Holocaust was not discussed openly,” she said. “I felt that this was a family secret about my mother that was just so terrible and so sad.”

Leslie went away to college and returned to Fort Worth. She married architect Alan Magee and started a career in finance. She was with her mother in 1997 when Brigitte gave her testimony to the Spielberg interviewer. Later that year, Leslie and her family traveled with Brigitte for the opening of a special exhibit about the Kovno ghetto in at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Brigitte, one of the few survivors, was an honored guest.

But perhaps the most healing moment came in 2002, the day Brigitte held her new granddaughter, Lauren, for the first time.

“It’s very vivid in my memory,” Leslie said. “When she held the baby my mom was aglow. It has never stopped.”

Taking the children

Brigitte, a widow for 11 years, just celebrated her 89th birthday, still living in the house in south Fort Worth where Leslie grew up. Three generations gathered there last week. Leslie went through old family photos while grandmother and granddaughter sat next to each other at a piano. Brigitte played while Lauren, already an accomplished singer and actress, sang Over the Rainbow.

Then Brigitte sat alone on the sofa, remembering horrors from a much different time and place. Lauren’s parents will not let her watch Schindler’s List or Brigitte’s videotaped testimony until she is a teenager. But on Thursday, her mother allowed the girl to listen from the piano bench as her grandmother remembered. Leslie stood close by.

“All of a sudden there were buses around the house,” Brigitte remembered of the Children’s Action. “We had just one tiny little room that was shared by several families. I think some SS men charged into the room and started interrogating everybody. They were surprised to see me not being at work. I guess I was sick that day.

“That’s when they started the children’s roundup,” she said. “My room was shared with other families. There was a grandfather and grandmother. They kept their little granddaughter who they were trying to hide under a blanket, but to no avail. The SS or maybe it was the Ukrainians yanked the little girl out of bed and put her on the bus. I think she was about 4 or 5. That’s how it happened.”

Did Brigitte know what happened to the girl?

“No,” she replied. “But none of the children survived.”

Had Brigitte thought much about the fact that she was one of the few to live?

“No, you do what you have to do,” she said calmly. “I don’t think so much about it. I really don’t live in the past. I live in the present.”

The present was the girl on the piano bench. Brigitte pointed toward Lauren and beamed.

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan

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