Anita Dittman has been speaking about the Holocaust for more than three decades, telling everyone who will listen of her survival and how Jesus Christ helped her escape the trap that was ‘Hitler’s hell.”
She has reached thousands through her book, “Trapped in Hitler’s Hell,” co-authored with fellow Minnesotan Jan Markell.
And visions of that hell would come back to haunt her at night.
“For years, those dreams would not go away,” she said.
At 87, she still speaks to audiences large and small, sometimes several times a month, recounting the story of a happy, 5-year-old Jewish girl when Hitler came to power in 1933 and how life changed over the next 12-and-a-half years living under Nazi rule. She would emerge on the other side of the concentration camps as a young woman of devout Christian faith, severely scarred but full of powerful stories.
For years, she kept those stories bottled up inside. It wasn’t until she reached her early 50s that they started coming out.
“The response I get today is as enthusiastic as ever,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Minnesota.
This week’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where 1.1 million Jews met their death, gave her cause to reflect once again on life under the Nazis.
Her message is different now, she says, much different than when she first went public in 1978 with her experience as a Holocaust survivor.
Could it happen here?
“When I started speaking in 1978-79, people would ask me, ‘Do you think it could happen here in this country?’ And I said, ‘Oh no, people are used to so much freedom in this country, it could never happen here,'” Ditmann told WND. “When they ask me that question now, I say, ‘It is already happening.'”
Americans are not “disappearing” as in Nazi Germany, but Dittman says something has changed.
“The country that I came to in 1946 was very different,” she said. “I can’t speak in public schools anymore. They won’t let me.”
When she informs educators that her message will contain strong Christian themes, she usually gets a few seconds of awkward silence. Then a polite rebuff.
One school administrator at a high school in northern Minnesota contacted her with an invitation to speak, saying she came highly recommended by some students who had heard her speak previously.
“I called him back and left a message and said I would be honored. Just let me know the date and time, and I will be there,” Dittman said.
“I said, I have to tell you, though, that Christ is in my message.”
“Well can’t you leave Christ out of it?” the man asked.
“He is the one who kept me safe. I can’t keep Him out,” Dittman responded.
Many other doors have closed at the mention of the “C” word.
“The doors were always open to me when I first started out speaking. And I spoke sometimes three, four, five times a day at schools,” she said. “Once I spoke in five classes, and when I came out of the fourth one, the principal said you don’t have to speak to the fifth because they are a rowdy bunch. Well, I told him, the Holy Spirit can work wonders, and they ended up being the best class of all. The kids want to hear it, the teachers want to hear it. But higher up is problem.”
Some schools still allow her to speak but require parents to sign a form saying it’s OK for their child to sit through a presentation that contains religious themes.
But more often, the parents don’t even have a say in the matter, and she is barred upfront from speaking.
“It’s getting worse, I tell you,” she said. “It’s so dictating to the parents now. This is how it started in Russia and Germany.”
Watch the recent interview below in which Anita Dittman describes what it was like living under Hitler and some of the similarities with today’s America.
In the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dittman noticed a crack in some of the doors that had previously been closed. The light briefly shined through.
“People were so scared and were allowing prayers to be prayed before football games and the doors to the schools were opened wide to me, but I remember talking to my pastor at the time and saying, ‘This will change.’ And it has,” she said. “It is changing more and more and more.”
And it’s not just public schools where free speech is being curtailed.
Dittman said she has friends on the East Coast who have a religious radio program, and they are being monitored by the federal government. They watch what they say now.
“She said please don’t use the name of the man that rules our country because they are monitoring our calls,” Dittman said. “And they even use fake names because they already got a warning sent to them.”
WND asked Dittman what, if anything, Christians should be doing to prepare for the day when the “soft” persecution becomes hard, like it did in Germany.
“The importance of faith in God would be the one thing, and the courage to speak up,” she said. “I tell some of my students I speak to, even in secular schools, keep the faith. You can lose your homes, your schools, everything, but if you have your faith, you have everything.”
“Pray to God that when the times come, He will be with you and will see you through. Also memorize scripture because you may not always have a Bible,” she said. “I lost my Bible during the Russian occupation, but God will remind you of the verses you need when you are in a situation where you are totally dependent on Him and your life is in danger.”
When people ask her how she survived, she says it came down to three things: faith, prayer and humor.
There were many times in the midst of tribulation and deprivation that funny things happened, she said. Like the time she and her friends were hiding out at a farm and the farmer forgot to clean his outhouse.
“I went to use the outhouse in the middle of the night,” she said. “There was a big mound in there, so I did what I could quickly but I heard a scratching sound down there. I quickly did my paper work and was wrapping things up when all of a sudden out jumped a chicken! It was crowing. I groped my way back to the house, I was laughing so hard I was out of breath, and I didn’t want to wake up the farmer. We all laughed so hard when I told the others what happened. So one of the guys called me the toilet chicken. That was my name from that point afterward.”
‘Angels without wings’
Sometimes, she says, God sent help from the most unlikely sources. That was the only way Dittman and four other girls managed to escape the Barthold labor camp, where children of mixed marriages were sent to work digging ditches. When their strength was used up, they were sent to Auschwitz. Dittman had entered the camp in the summer of 1944 and contracted blood poisoning from an infection in her foot. She could hardly walk, having had surgery less than a week before, yet she managed to escape in the middle of a harsh German winter with the help of her friends and, later, some German soldiers.
Every year on Feb. 11, she and her husband still celebrate her escape from Barthold.
“The day I escaped, it was so amazing. We prayed all night, five of us girls, we prayed to Jesus if it was His will would He free us from the hands of our persecutors. And the people He used, I always say were angels without wings,” Ditman said. “And the German soldiers were some of those angels.”
As she recalls some of those incidents in which strangers helped her, her voice still cracks with emotion.
“Even as I speak, I relive it. That’s what makes it more interesting for people. It comes back to me,” she said. “One woman told me: ‘When you talk about the horrors, you are calm, but when you talk about the greatness of God your voice starts to crack.’ It was so enormous how God watched over us and watched over my mother and sister, too.”
While some Jews lost their faith and emerged from the Holocaust as atheists, Dittman experienced the opposite. Her faith was strengthened.
“I always say if I didn’t have faith that would be unusual. It started by hearing the word of God and afterward by being tested,” she said.
A time of testing
That same time of testing will be faced by every Christian at one point or another, she said, as this is what builds faith.
“Oh yeah, it is coming. And you know, it isn’t good for parents to pamper their children; you can’t tell them that everything is going to be hunky dory because it isn’t,” she said.
For that reason, she does not edit out a lot of details when speaking to groups of young children.
“I have spoken to very young kids, and the only thing I don’t speak about or use is the word ‘rape,'” she said.
She tells Christian students today what it was like living as a Jew under the Nazis. Even before she was hauled off to a hard labor camp, she dealt with a teacher who gave her poor grades regardless of how well she performed, slapped her hands with a stick and treated her as second class. Her fellow students derided her.
“After school, they threw horse manure at me, and they called me ‘Jew brat,'” she said. “Mother said don’t hit back, just stand firm and pray that the Lord will be with you.”
The verbal abuse eventually led to beatings. Then came the knock on the door. She had to say goodbye to her mother, who was dropped off at a synagogue while she, as a young, healthy teenager, ended up in a life of hard labor.
The father figure she never had
The man who led her to Christ when she was about 7 years old was a pastor who stood firm against the Nazis. In 1934, he wrote a personal letter to Hitler telling him how disappointed he and many of his colleagues were that Hitler was persecuting the Jews, Dittman said. Later, when pastors throughout Germany were placing pictures of Hitler up above their altars, her pastor refused.
America needs more pastors like that today, she said.
“My pastor did belong to a confessional movement, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller; he worked with them against the Nazis,” she said. “How much more bold can a pastor get than to write a personal letter to Hitler?
“He came to visit us, he brought us each a Bible, and he said, ‘I’m not forcing you, but I have a love for God’s people, and I have many Jewish people in my Bible study. You come to my church. I am not forcing you, but you come, and we would love to have you in our church.'”
Her mother, who was steeped in a form of New Age mysticism called Theosophy, finally conceded.
“She finally got desperate enough and was willing to give up that horrible religion, which is like Hinduism, and go to church,” Dittman said. “It was not only his message but how he lived his life that made the difference. He would not put that picture of Hitler up over the altar, and he had a wife and five kids to be concerned about. That is the type of faith Christ wants from us today, not to be afraid. So many pastors today are afraid to lose their pension. But today they have to be careful not to be against gays or lesbians or they could get kicked out of their congregation. They are catering, and they are not supposed to do that. It’s hard not to. Some are even persecuted in their own families for taking a stand.”
Christians were also in the death camps
Dittman said that when anti-Semitism is openly practiced, anti-Christian bigotry is usually right around the corner.
“It’s a known fact where the Jews are not welcome and are persecuted, the Christians come right afterward. They come together, and that was the case in Germany,” she said. “There weren’t only Jews in the gas chambers. There were also Christians, Catholic priests, pastors.”
Dittman reminds her students that Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power peacefully. The battle for the minds of the people had been going on for years before the Nazis consolidated their power and Germany became a dictatorship.
“The problem is a lot of these younger guys, they believed everything Hitler told them. He was charismatic and they were pulled into joining the party, and so then when they found out what he was all about they couldn’t get out,” she said. “There is so much today that reminds me of the times of Hitler, because I went through it for 12-and-a-half years, starting when I was 5-and-a-half. But even then I knew I was not one of the crowd. My mother told me there will be many kids who will not be allowed to play with me.”
Watch Part II of interview with Anita Dittman.
Dittman said her mother came to believe in Christ as her Messiah several years after she did, when Ditman was 11.
Her sister, Hella, was a different story. Hella made it out of Germany before Anita and their mother, escaping to England.
“My sister pretended on the surface, but when she came to see us in 1961, she didn’t want to hear us talk about Christ. She said, ‘I don’t need your prayers,’ and unfortunately three years later she died of cancer,” Dittman said. “My father was a hardened atheist and when she died, he was totally wiped out, and I had a fairly good relationship with him afterward. He also died unsaved, saying, ‘Leave me alone with your religious nonsense.'”
For years, Dittman lived a normal American life but kept her Holocaust experience mostly to herself. Sometimes, when people asked about her German accent, she would tell them where she came from and some of what happened to her.
One of those encounters occurred when she was working at a local library in rural Minnesota.
A man came into the library where I was working, and when I told him of my background, he said, ‘You must speak to people about this.’ I said no. I didn’t want to do that, and he said, ‘Well, I’m going to pray for you.’ And he must have prayed because it wasn’t long after that I started speaking.”
She had to overcome her fears of public speaking, though.
“Only a couple of times at first, in the small church group I was attending. And Jan would record my talks. She said she couldn’t write fast enough to get it all down,” Dittman said. “And I think it was a relief for me to talk about it.”
As she started to relive her story through relating it to others, she noticed the nightmares became more infrequent and eventually stopped.
“That’s why it is so important for soldiers. My son was in Vietnam, so I am familiar with that,” she said.
So just as she escaped from the trap of Hitler’s hell, with help from God, she later escaped from the hell of the memories — memories of the Nazi nurse who tried to kill her in a work-camp clinic, memories of soldiers who tried to rape her, memories of bones protruding, beatings, and the Fuhrer’s picture hanging everywhere.
The stories live on. But they no longer give her nightmares.
Dittman, who will turn 88 in May, prays that America will turn from its current path before it’s too late.
Instead of stage freight, she now relishes each opportunity to share her story. She has survived eight surgeries and two heart attacks.
“I’m a tough old broad,” she said.
But that toughness can melt in a second when she gets her message through to one more child.
“One boy came up after I spoke and told me, ‘We have a lot of speakers, but you have Christ in it.'”
And that was the highest compliment she could receive.
One of the Bible passages Dittman likes to cite is Matthew 5:43-45.
“Christ was talking to the people, [and] He said they were taught to love their neighbor and hate their enemies, ‘but I say love your enemies.’ I tell people this is a heavy passage. This is tough,” she said. “God put me to the test, and without His help, I would not be able to pass the test. It’s heavy, but it must be done.”
Dittman had to live this verse out when confronted with the Nazi nurse who had earlier tried to kill her.
“I knew when I stood there, and I took my candle and walked closer and recognized her sitting on the mattress weeping, I said, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do with her?’ And I realized He wanted me to comfort her. I said, ‘Lord I can’t do that.'”
The nurse told Dittman she had been raped several times by the Russian soldiers.
“She was sobbing. I said, ‘Lord, thank you. You kept me from having to experience that.'”
“How can you comfort me? Don’t you realize I tried to kill you?” the nurse said to her.
“I told her it was only for Christ’s sake,” Dittman said. “He helped me do it. If it were not for that I could never do it. I am typically human.”