For a standing-room-only audience in the Hubbard Performance Hall on Tuesday, Holocaust survivor Ruth "Tutti" Lichtenstern Fishman recounted the harrowing story of her childhood escape with her family from Nazi extermination during World War II.
Ruth and her daughter, K. Heidi Fishman '80, shared the account with the freshman class and other community members in a special session of the Freshman Seminar in the Common Good. Heidi accompanied her mother on stage to help explain images and statistics projected on the screen behind them and to give historical context to her mother's personal narrative. Much of the projected information was from extensive research that Heidi conducted into her family's past when she was writing Tutti's Promise, a novel published early this year, based on her family's story of endurance.
The Nazis killed six million Jewish people during the Holocaust, said Tutti. "To give you some perspective, six million people is roughly twice the population of the state of Connecticut," she told the crowd gathered for her talk. "But my story has a happy ending," Tutti added. She is one of only 100 child survivors among the 15,000 children sent through the Theresienstadt ghetto-camp located in what is now the Czech Republic.
Born in Germany in 1935, Tutti moved with her family to the Netherlands in 1936 before World War II broke out. Tutti recounted how life for herself, her family, and other Jewish people in Holland became severely restricted. She showed a photo of the identification card that Jews were forced to carry and a photo of herself and her classmates at a segregated Jewish-only school taken in 1942. Young Tutti could travel only on designated Jewish public transport, she explained, and she and her family, like all Jewish families, eventually were forced to leave their home and valuables and sent to live in a Jewish-only ghetto.
Tutti described how she and her brother, who both were children at the time, "did as we were told" in the interminable registration and transferring processes imposed upon them by the Nazi regime, enroute first to a transit camp in Westerbork and then to Theresienstadt.
"It was always, 'Schnell! Schnell!'" which meant "Hurry up!" in German, Tutti explained, and there were continual threats of being "sent east," which was code for being sent to an extermination camp.
She shared details she remembers about daily life and work in the camps. Showing a picture of a well-worn doll that her father had given her early in their long odyssey, she explained that her father had filled the doll's hollow head with money and instructed her never to let the doll out of her sight because the family might need the money one day. As promised, Tutti kept the doll with her at all times until very recently bequeathing it to the Museum of Jewish Civilization at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
Her father's work as an international metal trader and his forethought to obtain a Paraguayan passport proved to be instrumental in the family's survival, Tutti said. He was moments away from being forced aboard a train at Theresienstadt destined for a death camp when his passport stayed his departure.
The camp was liberated by the Russians, and the captives were further aided by the United States Army in the spring of 1945. Tutti showed a picture of a U.S. soldier she called her "first crush," a young man whose name she still remembers, Lloyd Miller, who gave her some chewing gum. Shortly afterwards, her family made their home once again in Amsterdam. Tutti eventually moved to the U. S. and made her home in West Hartford in 1958. Her children, Heidi and Peter L. Fishman '78, attended Loomis Chaffee.
Bearing witness to history has the power to help humanity endure and even transcend evil, which is why Tutti and Heidi were invited to speak at Freshman Seminar, said Eric LaForest, the Keller Family Director of the Norton Family Center for the Common Good. He thanked them for sharing their family's story of moral courage with Loomis students.Sponsored by the Norton Center, their visit to Loomis was made possible from the Carolyn Belfer '86 Fund for Jewish Life. To learn more, connect to the Norton Center's page of the Loomis website.