Pre-war Germany: Speaker claims 65M were bystanders

Pre-war Germany: Speaker claims 65M were bystanders

Frtiz Ottenheimer spoke to an audience Oct 17 about his experience with Nazi Germany.

Taylor Fowler, Features Editor

Pitt-Johnstown students, faculty and area residents filled the pews of Whalley Chapel Oct. 17 to hear 89-year-old Fritz Ottenheimer speak.

Ottenheimer, a native of Konstanz, Germany, was 8 years old when Adolf Hitler rose to power.

“Even as a child, I was very much aware of the drastic change in Germany,” he said.

He said he spent his days at school, playing soccer and hanging out with other children. But suddenly, hatred was everywhere.

“All hell broke loose, as the saying goes,” he said.

Many Jewish children attended public school, but were expelled and taught Nazi propaganda in separate facilities.

Ottenheimer said it was obvious the teachers did not believe what they were administering, but taught it because they had to.

In 1933, Ottenheimer attended school assemblies in a gymnasium where children had to listen to Hitler’s hateful speeches, mainly directed at the Jewish population.

“That was the only time in my life I ever passed out,” he said, referring to losing consciousness at a school assembly due to feeling scared.

Five years later in 1938, Ottenheimer said many Jewish people fled their homes to come to Konstanz in hopes of escaping to Switzerland.

Konstanz is located at the western German border and had a reputation of being safer than the rest of the country, according to Ottenheimer.

“The only thing they could save now was their lives,” he said.

Ottenheimer and his family helped smuggle roughly 300 Jewish citizens to safety in Switzerland. However, the Ottenheimer family did not have the financial resources to flee themselves.

Ottenheimer said at the time, they had no idea of the violence to come.

An unannounced night of violence occurred Nov. 9 when Nazi soldiers destroyed thousands of Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes.

Ottenheimer said that 30,000 Jewish men age 16 and older were arrested and taken to concentration camps. This night is famously known as the “Night of Broken Glass.”

One of the men arrested was Ottenheimer’s father, Ludwig, who was a World War I decorated veteran.

According to Ottenheimer, concentration camps were not yet used to kill Jewish citizens. They simply housed prisoners in horrible conditions.

Some prisoners were released for one month to six months, including Ottenheimer’s father.

During this time, concentration camps became death camps equipped with technology for killing prisoners in mass numbers.

Luckily for the Ottenheimer family, they were granted permission to live with a family member in the United States.

In 1939 at age 14, Ottenheimer moved to New York with his family and attended high school in Bronx.

When he was graduated, he joined the Army and was trained as a rifleman. He served back in his homeland during World War II.

Ottenheimer served as a German interpreter. He and fellow soldiers would follow close behind tanks and clean up cities after they were taken over by Americans.

“It gave me satisfaction to fight back against these monsters,” he said.

After his experience with Nazi Germany, Ottenheimer travels to share his story of the Holocaust and World War II.

“It is all a matter of history now,” he said. “But it’s important for (audiences) to know the effect on individual people.”

He said the majority of German people did not agree with Hitler’s terror, but none did anything to stop it.

“Sixty-five million Germans did not become sixty-five million murderers,” he said. “They became sixty-five million bystanders.”

Alumni and Community Relations Executive Director Bob Knipple said that Pitt-Johnstown, in partnership with the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, hosted Ottenheimer as part of a Johnstown Jewish Community Project to celebrate Johnstown area Jewish life.

Ottenheimer said it is important to get involved with those who need outside help to fix injustice.

He said that conclusions drawn from the Nazi Germany events could help prevent anything like that from happening in the future.

Ottenheimer has spoken in places such as Portage and Forest Hills, Pennsylvania. He also returned to Konstanz to share his speech in his homeland.

“It was gratifying,” he said.