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Holocaust survivor to speak about being 'trapped in Hitler's hell'

Anita Dittman, right, her mother Hilde and sister Hella faced violence and oppression during the holocaust in the late 1930s and 40s.

No matter how many times Anita Dittman tells stories of her holocaust days, she breaks down in tears every single time.

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-type 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, Minn., woman will visit Woodbury 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.

There is not enough time to tell her complete story of survival. Every part of her life was a journey, deserving of a book all on its own, she said.

"If I were to write it alone, I probably would've filled 500 pages," she said, referring to the book she co-authored with Jan Markell.

The beginning

Dittman was born to an atheist father and a "somewhat of an orthodox Jew" mother, she said.

Although her mother wasn't a practicing Jew, the family was targeted for oppression when Hitler decided to unify Germany into a master race.

"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."

Dittman 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 small, 200-year-old building, she said.

"They were cleansing the apartments from all Jewish influence," Dittman said.

The Nazis burned synagogues, smashed store fronts of Jewish businesses and "dragged old men out by their beards and put them in concentration camps."

With the help of their pastor, 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

Dittman remembered how, at the age of 15 when she went back to school, the principal came into her classroom with a letter from the Gestapo - the 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 a 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, six days a week."

Still, she continued to say it could've been worse.

"We just thanked God that we were still free," she said.

That didn't last long, however.

A few months later, the Nazis took her mom to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, which was 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.

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 and wrote a note that said she'd be leaving and not to worry. She stuck it inside the bread and put the wrapping back on.

And she prayed: "Lord, please protect this loaf from falling into the hands of Nazi guys."

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."

Working for the country?

When Dittman was forced to work in a camp farther away 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 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.

'The Russians are coming'

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.

"If you're unfit to work, you're unfit to live," she said. "And they would've shot me on the spot. Either that or tortured me to death."

After marching home from work one day, Dittman said she saw farmers in the village running with their kids and livestock. There were horse drawn wagons everywhere and just a "strange smell in the air."

"We could see the night sky was all lit up bright red," she said.

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.

"We didn't know what was waiting for us the next morning," Dittman said.

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 Dittman was half Jewish, the woman later found out her true heritage while she was under anesthesia during surgery. Her care changed after that.

"I never was even given one aspirin to kill the pain," she said.

Things changed when Russia invaded the town, Dittman said. They did a good job of liberating the camps, she said, but left scars of their own.

One day, two Russian soldiers attacked Dittman, a 17-year-old girl at the time.

"They took off my clothes and they were going to help themselves to me," she said.

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. "I told it umpteen times, it's always like it's happening all over again."

Finding her mother

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. It was a pleasant surprise that Hilde Dittman was still alive.

"I saw my mother again on the seventh of June of 45 and a year later on the seventh 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, her voice breaking up. "After so many years of oppression, finally, finally to be free, it was unbelievable."

She continued on to say that nobody on the ship said a word when they got to Ellis Island - all she could hear were sobs of relief.

"It was a dream we had for so many years, to be freed. It was amazing."

Listen to more of Dittman's story from 6:30 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.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.