According to Anita Dittman, there is an old saying, “Love your enemies and do good to those that hate you.”
“Well,” said Dittman, “God made me put this into practice.”
Dittman, author of Trapped in Hitler’s Hell, got a little choked up, something that happened many times throughout the afternoon as she spoke at First Lutheran Church in Ellendale Sunday, April 26.
Dittman was born in 1937 in Breslau, Germany, near the Polish border. Her mother was an Orthodox Jew and her father was a pure-blooded German. They lived in a lovely suburban neighborhood in a nice, big house. She lived a very comfortable lifestyle for 5 ½ years until Hitler came into power. When that happened, each person had to write their names on a list, either Jew or Aryan. Anita looked at her mother and asked, “What am I? I’m both.” When her mother directed her to write her name on the Jewish list, she responded, “I would rather be on that list. I would rather be a victim than the oppressor.”
Ballet was her one main passion in life. Her mother had enrolled her in a class where the teacher, who used to be a prima ballerina, took a special interest in her. Her teacher groomed her to be a prima ballerina as well. When she was 7 years old, her teacher allowed her to start dancing with the “big girls” and she was featured in her first ever performance. At the end, everyone applauded and her teacher gave her a little doll. That night, she said, “I had some of the sweetest dreams I ever had. But come morning, the papers were saying, ‘Germans no longer wanted to be entertained by the Jews.’”
She continued her ballet classes, however, until the time when her father left the family and they were forced to move. They were no longer able to afford ballet lessons anymore and she had to give up on her dreams. A few months later, a friend invited her to Easter service at her church. “During that service, I was so awed,” she said. “Christ came into my life at that point and I had the deepest sense of security.” She ran home to tell her mother and older sister what she had just learned. At first they didn’t believe her. She said, “It took my mother a few years, but she finally listened to me. My sister never did. I learned that no matter what, Christ has a way to scoop up our shattered hopes and dreams.”
November 8, 1938 is the night known as Kristallnacht, when Nazis smashed Jewish storefronts and dragged old men from houses by their beards. “Some of them came back, but most of them didn’t. One of our neighbors, who was an Aryan, came to our house and said for us not to go to school the next day because it would be too dangerous. The teachers all understood why we did not come and we didn’t get punished,” said Dittman. “The teachers were all very kind still and no one had joined the Hitler Youth yet.”
At the beginning of 1939, the family received some good news. An organization was going to help them get visas so they could go to England before the storm that had been brewing finally erupted into war. Unfortunately, not too long after they received this news did they hear that the Nazis had burned all the papers and they had to reapply for visas all over again. During that time, they had to move out of the suburbs and into the inner city Jewish ghetto. It was basically one huge building with many floors and apartments. More than 200 people lived in the building. Four families lived together in one apartment, which had one bedroom and one bathroom. Dittman said, “It was all okay though. We all adjusted to each other because we were thankful that we were still free.”
When Anita was 15 years old, she was pulled from class by the principal and handed an envelope from the SS. Fearfully, she opened the envelope but found that she had only been permanently suspended from the school. Dittman said, “The principal had said that it was about time that they got people like me out of schools anyway. So I went to go work with my mother in the labor camp. We had to work hard labor for 10 hours a day, but we were still allowed to live at home and go to church.” During the summer of 1939, something wonderful arrived in the mail. It was a visa. The only problem was that the only visa that had arrived was for her older sister. The others were still being processed and would take some time yet. They urged her sister to go to England and they would eventually meet up with her soon.
The time to meet up with her sister never came. As of September 1, 1939 no traffic could go in or out of Germany without Nazi approval and no foreign mail was allowed in. Along with that, her hope of getting a visa and leaving the country vanished. Life went on until January 2, 1943. That day she and her mother were getting ready to go to work at the factory when someone knocked at the door. The SS agents grabbed her mother by the collar of her coat and demanded she go with them. They also put red labels on everything in the house except for Anita’s bed. When asked what the red labels were for, Anita was informed that everything with a red label was now property of the Nazi party and would be taken to a storage facility. If she wanted anything back she would have to pay for it. Anita was allowed to accompany her mother to the train where she would be taken to the concentration camp. She asked her mother what she should do about getting the things back. Her mother responded with, “Call your father.”
Dittman said, “When I saw my mother go into the train and the door closed behind her, I had to do everything in my power to keep from crying out. I didn’t start crying until I was all alone.” Luckily, the camp that Anita’s mother was taken to allowed them to get mail and food packages. Anita knew she had no money to pay for food packages to send to her mother, but she did not want her mother to starve. She decided to spend half her rations on food for her mother and went with very little food. She had always sent her mother a big loaf of light bread with the money, but one morning she woke up with the decision to send her dark bread instead. She didn’t know why this was but she followed that instinct. Years later she found out that her mother had gotten sick and couldn’t eat the light bread. She laid in her cot, thinking to herself, “Lord, please have her send dark bread instead.”
Eventually there was a knock on the door for Anita as well. She was told to pack a knapsack and suitcase with anything she would need and head to the railroad station by the next day. She decided she would have to send a message to her mother somehow to let her know Anita would not be sending food for a while. She bought one more loaf of light bread and wrote a small note on red paper and stuck it deep into the bread. She then made it look like the bread had never been cut into so no one would become suspicious. After sending the bread off, she prayed that the Nazis, who sometimes helped themselves to the food instead of giving it to the prisoners, would not do so this time. Years later she found that when it had arrived at the camp her mother was staying at it was so covered in mold that the Nazis wanted nothing to do with it and gave it directly to her mother. When her mother wiped all the mold away, she found the bread still as fresh as the day Anita had bought it and the note inside the bread.
At the railroad station, Anita was put onto a train with other people. Some of them were clubbed if they did not move onto the train fast enough. When they arrived at the camp, she was housed with 150 or more other women in a filthy, old cow shed. They were each given two gray horse blankets. The men were staying in the horse stable. The toilet was an open ditch with no shelter from the environment. There was one faucet on the outside of the barn for washing. They were awakened at dawn each day and given some bread with imitation coffee for breakfast. They were then supplied with digging equipment and were going to dig ditches to stop the Russian tanks. They were told many times, “You are working for Adolf Hitler now. You should feel honored.”
They were not given any food to eat during the day besides the bread at the beginning. They were allowed a sip of water every once in a while. Rest was only awarded for the day if it was raining; it did not rain for the first six weeks they worked there. At the end of the day, they were finally allowed to eat. Food was brought in a huge bucket and everything was mixed together. Dittman mentioned, “We never asked what was in it. We didn’t really want to know what might be swimming around in there.” After they ate for the night, they were allowed some free time. Anita found four other women who were Christians and formed a little Bible study with them as they were all allowed to keep their Bibles.
In October, they were forced to pack up and move to another camp. In this camp they were working in the forest cutting down trees. They were told in November that when the work was completed they were going to be sent to Auschwitz to be cremated. The conditions at the camp were horrible and many of them contracted lice; however, all of them thanked God that they were not in Auschwitz yet. During Christmas, those who were Christian were allowed to go to church for one hour of reprieve from the camp. On January 23rd they were told to pack their things and stand outside where they were marched away. At this time, Anita had a chance to run away.
A group of boys from her hometown told her they were going to run back to their hometown. They said that since everyone was gone from there already, nobody would find them there or even think to look. They urged her come with them. She was tempted to go but a man that she had grown to love, named Christian, urged her to stay back with him and his sister. She loved him dearly and chose to stay with him. This proved to be a good choice: the boys who had run away had been reported to the Nazis, who tracked them back to their hometown. They had been hiding out in the apartments when the Nazis dropped a bomb on the building, killing them all.
Around this time, Anita noticed all the German villagers were getting restless and were running around, packing their belongings. When asked what was going on, she was informed that the Russians were coming. They all began walking, hoping to outrun the Russians by a good amount. At this point, Anita had a blister pop. Dirt started to get into the sore and she began to feel weak. She did not let the guards know this because, “They had a saying, ‘If you are not fit to work, you are not fit to live.’ And I wanted to live.” After a while, the men were held back and the women were forced onto wagons, some having to leave their husbands behind.
They finally came up to a camp but found that it needed a key. Anita and one of her friends volunteered to go get it with a driver of one of the wagons. While the guards discussed things among themselves, Anita, her friend, and the three others from the Bible group devised a plan to run away. The three others would sneak off and head to the railroad station where they would wait for Anita and the other friend. Thankfully, they were all able to get away and meet up and shed their work clothes; they had regular clothes on underneath. They agreed Anita looked the most Aryan of the group with her long, blonde hair and everyone would believe them if they said she was one. They were able to sneak away on a train.
Anita fell asleep and woke up shivering and feverish. They had no choice but to take her to the Red Cross facility in Berlin. When it was time to stop, a nice German officer carried her off of the train, believing her to be Aryan. They found shelter at one of the girls’ in-laws where the soldier dropped her off and left. By morning, it was determined they were going to have to take her to the hospital. They discovered the nurse was a Nazi, so they were all forced to keep quiet about who they really were. The nurse wrapped her wound and told her they would have to operate on her. After Anita came out of the operation, she heard the nurse speak, “Boy, that girl sure talks a lot.” After hearing that, Anita knew she had most likely mentioned something about her being a Jew.
The nurse’s behavior soon became sadistic. She refused to give Anita antibiotics after the surgery and would allow soap and other residue to enter into the infection, making it worse. Along with physically harming her, she also mocked and ridiculed her. Dittman mentioned, “She really wanted to kill me. She could see herself getting awarded with a medal from Hitler for killing a Jew. That thought seemed to please her.” Eventually one of Anita’s friends brought concerns to the doctor in charge, saying he should go check on Anita. The doctor had been hearing from the nurse that Anita had been healing perfectly and had not thought she needed to be checked upon.
Dittman said, “That was one reason I knew the doctor was not a Nazi. When he checked up on me, he actually did something about it.” She immediately had to go into surgery again and when she woke up she discovered she had a new nurse. The other nurse was sent to another section of the hospital with bigger pay. Dittman stated, “They had to be careful in those days. The doctor couldn’t fire her and say it was because he was trying to save a Jew’s life.” Anita prayed every day for God to save her leg and not have it cut off. Her prayers were answered. She eventually was able to walk again and got better day by day. One day the sirens went off, informing everyone the Russians had arrived.
Anita was lucky in one regard to her legs being in the state that they were. When the Russians invaded the hospital, they immediately started assaulting every woman. When one got to Anita, they thought that the bandages around her leg was fake and immediately took it off. Puss began to ooze out at him and she said, while laughing, “I guess I grossed him out so bad they all left me alone after that.” She got up eventually to go out into the hall. There, she spotted someone sitting on a mattress and crying. She recognized her as the nurse that had tried to kill her. She deliberated for a moment and finally went over to comfort the nurse.
The nurse cried out that the Russians had assaulted her various times. Anita comforted her and after a while the nurse asked, “How can you come and comfort me? Don’t you realize I tried to kill you?”
Anita said, “Yeah, I know that. The Lord has given me courage to come and forgive you.”
After that day, Anita was forced to leave the hospital because there were more residents coming in who needed the beds. She started her journey to find her mother. She met up with another Jewish person who informed her his home in Prague was not too far away from the camp that her mother was at. He said he would like to be her escort for that part of the trip. On June 7, 1945 she was finally reunited with her mother. She found out the Russians had invaded 24 hours before her mother’s camp had finished construction on the new gas chambers and they had been spared.
Together, they reached out to her sister in England. Although they were in contact with her, they were still not allowed to go to England. It had been badly ravaged during the war and could not take in immigrants for a long time. They set off for America instead. They sailed over very rough sea for 11 days. Her mother was one of four out of 200 people who did not get sick. Dittman mentioned, “That’s fine. I was sick enough for the both of us. But we all, all 200 of us, were up on deck to see the statue of liberty for the first time. Well, it didn’t turn out the way we expected. The foghorn was blaring the whole time and there was so much fog we couldn’t hear and see anything for a good while. But when we say it,” she began to choke up, “it still gets me every time I think of it.”
Anita and her mother stayed in New York for a while to rest. They eventually made their way to Iowa and settled down. Anita finished her schooling and went on to college and married; she has two children who live in the Cities.
(A Minnesota Newspaper Report)