Holocaust survivor speaks to BPHS students

Cameron Happe and Kayte Zeiler

On Wednesday, Feb. 4, Fritz Ottenheimer came to BPHS to tell the students about his experience in the Holocaust. He spoke in front of about 400 10th graders in the auditorium.

English teachers Ms. Totty and Ms. Findlay invited Mr. Ottenheimer to speak.

Ottenheimer was born in the small town of Constance, Germany. Constance is on the border of Switzerland. When Ottenheimer was eight, Hitler took control over Germany. Most kids were not conscious of what was happening with the government, but Ottenheimer knew something big was going to happen.

His parents owned a little store that sold menswear. Two months after Hitler took over, Ottenheimer’s father was on his way to open the store and he noticed a voice over loud speakers around town saying, “Don’t buy from the Jews, buy from the Germans.” Eventually, they lost their store and times got tough.

Early in 1938, when Ottenheimer was 13 years old,  Hitler announced he would take over Austria. Jewish families from Austria were escaping to Germany, but due to laws made by the Nazi’s, Jews could not stay in hotels, so the Ottenheimer family decided to house a family.

The family came to Constance to go across the border into Switzerland. They told stories of how gangs of Austrians attacked Jewish people, broke into their homes and store, robbed them, and beat them. The Ottenheimers were shocked. Fritz Ottenheimer’s dad showed the Austrians the border, and they then escaped.

After this, many families came to the Ottenheimers to be smuggled across the border. Then in August 1938, Switzerland closed off the border and said they would arrest anyone who illegally crossed the border and return them to the Germans. After being returned to the Germans, they would be sent to a concentration camp.

The Ottenheimers Christian land lady told them all men in Constance had been arrested. He was confused because his dad had not been arrested. They came to the conclusion that he was not arrested because they had just recently moved into their new apartment, but soon enough, there was a knock on the door to take him away. The Gestapo, or secret police, did not read any charges to the men as they arrested them. They had no reason as to why they were arresting them. A month later, his father had returned from the camp he had been taken to. He was very ill and weak, but he recovered.

In May 1939, the Ottenheimers got permission to leave for the United States. They had relatives there that they would stay with. They escaped Germany before anything worse could happen to their family.

In America, Ottenheimer fought against the Germans in World War II. After he was discharged from war, he got a degree in mechanical engineering. He was a mechanical engineer for 40 years, and he retired 20 years ago.

Fritz Ottenheimer and his wife live in Oakland, Pittsburgh today. He has two children and four grandchildren. He’s currently 89, but he turns 90 next month! He is the author of his memoir Escape and Return. 

After Mr. Ottenheimer’s speech, students were invited to ask questions. Questions were submitted in writing and reviewed before being asked.

Mr. Ottenheimer presented BPHS with a copy of his memoir and in turn Ms. Totty presented Mr. Ottenheimer with a Bethel Park Black Hawk hat which he proudly donned.

Mr. Ottenheimer was also interviewed by The Almanacthe Tribune Reviewand The Post-Gazette.

6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. 1.5 million of them were children.

“It’s not just a couple thousand Nazis who murdered, but 65 million Germans who allowed it to happen. A bystander who knows it’s happening but doesn’t do anything is an accomplice of the murder. When you find out something unjust is happening, speak up and get involved,” Ottenheimer said.

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