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Hannah Deutch: A Holocaust Survivor's Story

By Cooper Drummond

Close up of Deutch speaking at Purchase (photo by Lily Jasper-Zaccardo)

Hannah Deutch is a Holocaust survivor. In an age where there is concern about an increase in anti-semtism, she uses her experience to educate others and works to ensure another Holocaust doesn’t happen.


During the Fall semester, Deutch spoke at Purchase College to tell her story and talk about these issues. She would preach to everyone in attendance the importance of educating others on what happened.


“We cannot be silent about it, deniers are all around us,” Deutch said.


Statistics from The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), show that she is correct. The Anti-Defamation League has been tracking anti-semetic incidents in the United States every year since 1979 through annual audits. In the most recent audit from 2021, there have been 2,717 incidents on record; this is a 34% increase from the 2,026 incidents recorded in 2020.


“I think that it's really scary to hear that there's been such a large increase in antisemitism from 2020 to 2021,” said Alyssa Millman, a sophomore psychology major and member of Hillel at Purchase, who attended the event. “It's really scary to see how quickly people can jump to hate.”


The Holocaust began in 1933 and ended in 1945, making the youngest Holocaust survivors today 77 years old.


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) contains the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors. According to The Museum of Jewish Heritage, over 200,000 records have been documented related to survivors or their families since its inception in 1981. According to the USHMM website, “a growing number of these individuals, who registered their names and historical information over the last 15 years, are now deceased.”


“I think that the dying of Holocaust survivors does have a connection to the rise of antisemitism. There is a lot of power in hearing someone who actually experienced such a traumatic event and it adds a sense of realness,” said Millman. I also think it has something to do with the time distance in general. As we move farther and farther from the Holocaust, it becomes less relevant to peoples lives.”


“It's up to us to be sure that it never happens again,” said Deutch. “Bring it home, talk about it, talk about it… When you have a classmate that's bullying somebody else don't be silent, talk up, talk up. It’s important because that's how it starts with bullying, unkindness, ostracizing people, maybe because they don't look like you,they don't feel like you or they don’t have the same religion or anything. That's how it starts. That's exactly the springboard of it,” said Deutch.


The Hillels of Westchester, a non-profit Jewish organization for various colleges in Westchester County, helped bring Deutch in to come speak.


“I wanted Purchase College students to get a first-hand account of people surviving,” said Lily Jasper-Zaccardo, a Jewish educator for the Hillels of Westchester. “As the generations are getting older, those stories are going to start to be secondhand.”


According to the Hillels of Westchester website, their mission is “to enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.”


“It's very powerful to hear from someone who actually went through it [the Holocaust] and seeing her as a human being talking makes it so much more shocking,” said Millman.


Roughly a few dozen students would pour into the Hillel lounge, located in the basement of Campus Center South to hear Deutch tell her story to the students at Purchase.


Deutch was born in Germany and spent her years before the war living in the city of Nuremberg, Germany. She remembers an incident at school with a former friend:

“In 1938, I was going to school. I saw my friend of course, across the street, her name is Liza. I said, ‘Hi Liza, are we going to play this afternoon?’ And she looked at me and she says, ‘I can never play with you again, you're a dirty Jew.’” She said, “Naturally, as a child, you touch yourself, but you say, ‘oh, I took a bath last night.’ And that's not what she meant, and of course, she never did play with me again.”


In 1938, on Nov. 9, violent anti-Jewish attacks happened throughout Germany. This became known as Kristallnacht, or night of the broken glass. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Nazi officials depicted the [attacks] as justified reactions to the assassination of German foreign official Ernst vom Rath, who had been shot two days earlier by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew distraught over the deportation of his family from Germany.”


“A couple of days before, my father had already been arrested and sent to Poland to a concentration camp,” said Deutch. Her mother was left to take care of Hannah, who was the youngest child of three, plus her brother and their older sister.


Then, came Kristallnacht. Deutch vividly remembers the events of that night.


“We lived in a three family and three-story house. We lived on the top floor, but there also was an attic . So, my mother, what all mothers want to do is to find a place for their children. So, she took her three children and she went off to the attic to hide there. We were there for maybe half an hour,” said Deutch. “‘DUUMM, DUUMM.’ They [Nazis] all wore boots that made a lot of noise. And lo and behold, they opened the attic. And they came in with their nets, guns aimed at us. You didn't know if they were going to kill you, take you prisoner or what they could do with you. You have no idea.”


Deutch was able to get out of the situation alive, thanks to her mother. “My mother was a very feisty woman. She was a Polish citizen,” said Deutch. “We were born in Germany, but my mother and father went on a Polish passport. Poland was not yet at war with Germany.”

“However, when they let us go, we went down to our apartments. It was in shambles. Couches were ripped with bayonets. Anything that was on a shelf was thrown and broken… we tried to clean it up as best as we could. It was almost unlivable. They even urinated all over the place. I mean, that is how far they went,” said Deutch.


Their safety did not last. “After about four or five, six days, people in the building again said to us, ‘beware. They are out tonight, and they are coming for all women and children.’ There was nothing much we could do about it,” said Deutch.


Deutch, her siblings and mother were all arrested and jailed that night, and put into a van the next day to Poland. “No air, food or water. Everything was closed. Hundreds and hundreds of people were placed into these cab cars… It took hours and it was awful. It was just awful. It's humiliating, almost undignified we had to live with the smells,” said Deutch.


Deutch’s family considered escaping on the train when it arrived in Poland. “Poland did not allow for the people to disembark. Well, at the time, we said, ‘oh my God, now we have to go back in this cab car.’ But in retrospect, it really saved our lives,” said Deutch. “Had we gone off, we would have been placed in concentration camps, and we would not have seen the light.”


That same train would bring Deutch’s family back to Germany. After arriving, they would end up going to Holland (which was not yet at war with Germany) to meet with her mother’s sister. She was a Dutch citizen and was able to provide the Deutch family with some money.


“Unbeknownst to us, my aunt was a tremendous storyteller. She told a beautiful story…. she said to me, ‘your doll is so tired. Let me take off, hold on, I'm going to give you a new doll.’ But she gave me such a nice story that I gave her the doll and she gave me another one,” said Deutch. She had money hidden away inside her new toy, along with her brother. “We didn't know at the time; my mother had built in joules of money into the doll’s head and into my brother's Erector set.”

Students listening into Hannah Deutch’s story on surviving the Holocaust (Photo by Lily Jasper-Zaccardo)

By this point in her story, dozens of people were sat down in front of the Holocaust survivor and listening to her story.


Deutch went back to Germany and stayed in the city of Cologne for a few weeks. The family had friends who lived there. “Unbeknownst to us, my father (who escaped Poland) now that he had some money, was able to engage what they called smugglers. And there were a couple of books on smuggling, very interesting. And if you pay them enough money, they will try to get you out of Germany into another country.”


However, this was risky for their lives. “Of course, once you paid them, you had no idea. Will they take your money? Will they kill you? Betray you? Or rescue, etc.? You have no idea. But you had to take that chance,” said Deutch.


One night, the family was smuggled out. “It was a complete, dark, dark night: no stars, no moon, pitch, pitch dark… The smugglers met us there. We walked, and we walked with what seemed endless in the pitch darkness. After many, many hours that we had walked, we came upon a clearing,” said Deutch. They encountered a moving van which would eventually locate them on a farm in Holland. The farmer would place them in the attic, where they would live for 7-10 days, according to Deutch.


“I should emphasize the fact, even though I'm sure that the farmer was paid handsomely, his life was on the line, too. If they found us, he would have been shot with us. There would have been no recourse,” said Deutch.


The presence of Nazis in that area increased and the family was forced to escape again, according to Deutch. This time, they would be smuggled in a hay wagon by the same farmer who housed them. “Of course, they've got some holes so you could breathe. Otherwise, we would have all suffocated.”


The Deutch family would end up in Belgium this time, but almost died twice along the way. She credits the survival of both experiences to God.


“On our way, he [the farmer] was stopped by sentries. They said, ‘where are you going and what are you counting?’ ‘Well,’ the farmer said ‘hay,’ but they didn't believe him. So, they took their pitchforks. We didn't know that, we were down on the bottom, and they put their pitchforks into the hay,” said Deutch.


“Someone was looking after [us] God or somebody was looking after [us]; they did not pierce us,” said Deutch.


The second incident happened on a bridge bordering Belgium. “There were sentries and soldiers aimed at us with guns,” said Deutch. The farmer dropped them off at the border, and as a result, the family no longer had his hay wagon for cover. “You think, ‘ok, this is it. They’re going to shoot us, they’re going to arrest us, they’re going to kill us’… Probably as a child, being that I still have my mom to protect me, I probably didn't think that way. But I'm sure it went through my mother's head,” said Deutch.


“The soldiers turned around and allowed us to cross the bridge,” said Deutch. “Again, a miracle happened. Was it God, was it somebody looking out?”


Deutch was able to afford a boat passage into England from the money inside the toys. there she was able to reunite with her father in London and once again assist in caring for his children. “My father was a jewel and diamond maker and the war was beginning to break out. He was very much in demand. And he was able to transport us to Cardiff, which is the capital of Wales. Now, we were saved from the Nazis.”


The war officially started a couple of weeks after Deutch arrived and they would frequently get bombed. “I think we spent more time in the cellar than we spent anyplace else because they bombed us every single night… We were lucky, our house stood still, we were not bombed there,” Deutch said. Her brother was the only person in the immediate family who was ever damaged in an attack, but he managed to survive it.


After a year in Cardiff, the Deutch family was able to escape the war entirely. “After a year, we had an aunt in Flatbush, Brooklyn who sent visas for us to come to America. And we crossed one of the last boats to cross the Atlantic,” said Deutch. Here her father was able to find a job and an apartment and Deutch and her brother would finish school and both go to college.


“He [Hitler] was not able to annihilate us, which is a testimony on my speaking to you guys is my memory of the ones that are no longer here,” said Deutch, who began crying at this point. She immediately said in front of everyone “if I get a little emotional, even after all these years of speaking to millions of schools, it still brings back a little emotion.”


“I think Hannah brought to life a lot of what she went through, and I think it was very inspiring. I hope that it also conveyed the message of being an upstander not just being a bystander. I think that was, that kind of is what inspired me to want to bring her to campus,” said Jasper.


As Deutch ages, she wants other people to learn from her experiences.

“I am towards the end, unfortunately…” she said. “We have you in order to spread it to get involved. Even if I'm not here to tell you personally, you will tell my story. You will remember my story. And it has to be told over and over and over again.”


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