When Sylvia Ruth Gutmann was 3 years old, her parents were ripped from her, thrown into cattle cars and murdered just because.
It’s a story of grief and unimaginable loss she has told many times across the globe, including to groups of students in Blount County. Gutmann has made four trips here from her home in Massachusetts, where she settled after immigrating.
Gutmann was born in 1939 in Antwerp, Belgium. Her family fled their home in Berlin, Germany, and relocated to France. She spent the first three years of her life in hiding with her family in the south of France. Gutmann, her two older sisters and her mother were arrested by the Vichy France police, the nominal government of France that collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II, and shipped to an interment camp in Rivesaltes established by the Vichy regime. Later, her parents were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp to their deaths. Gutmann and her sisters were saved and taken to Switzerland by the French Resistance. In 1946, she immigrated to New York.
Roman Lay, a 2011 graduate of Alcoa High School and now English teacher at his alma mater, was in the audience at AHS years ago when Gutmann gave the details of her family’s tragic story. Her words have never left him.
“Because I am a Jew.”
That’s why what happened to her happened to her, Lay said.
“The first time I ever heard her speak was in the gym,” he said. “That phrase sticks in my head. ‘Because I am a Jew.’ She said that over and over. She repeated it but not redundantly. It hit harder every time she said it.”
Lay’s students are reading Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” which chronicles the Jewish author’s Holocaust experience at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He said when AHS German teacher Ken Brown asked if he wanted his students to hear Gutmann tell her story when she visits next week, Lay was adamant that she do so.
“They are at the point now where they won’t be able to meet someone who has this firsthand knowledge,” he said. “She was very young when this happened. Most of the survivors were older at the time and are dead. These students need to hear this story.”
Gutmann will do a presentation at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Blount County Public Library, which is open to the public. She has written her memoir, called “A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan.” She will talk about the book and sign copies.
A GoFundMe campaign led by Brown and his students and a scholarship from the Knoxville Jewish Alliance are making Gutmann’s visit possible.
Brown first made contact with Gutmann in 2008 when he heard about an artist, Gunter Demnig, who was creating stones to be placed at locations where Jews who were murdered had lived. The memorials are called “Stolpersteines,” which means “stumbling blocks.” The German-born artist laid the first one in 1994. The first one in Berlin was installed in 1996. As of 2018, there are over 70,000, placed in Germany and other countries in Europe.
There are no other graves or cemetery markers for them.
The “Gedenkstatte Deutscher Widerstand,” a memorial to the German Resistance, is responsible for the program in Berlin, Brown said.
He and his German students paid for one of the six stones that have been laid for Gutmann’s parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle. A livestream of the memorial program was organized, with Brown and his students watching as the artist himself laid the stones in the pavement.
“Each stone is personal,” Brown said. “Here lived ...”
The horrifying details
Brown still recalls Gutmann’s first visit to Alcoa. She told of how her mother had sacrificed herself so her children could live. “My mom had to look me in the eye and say ‘You can’t come with me,’” as she was being led away to a concentration camp, Gutmann told them.
Morgan Hodson teaches eighth grade at Alcoa Middle School and remembers a visit by Gutmann to her students.
“She tailored her talk to my eighth-graders,” Hodson explained. “To be more along the lines of bullying, this is why you need to step in right away, this is why you need to be kind, to prevent things like this from happening. It turned into the most organically beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
This teacher, who knows how teens are expert at internalizing their fears, said they opened up to each other in that room after recognizing the hardships so many were carrying alone.
All students of Hodson read the graphic novel “Maus,” which is the story of one man’s Holocaust experience told and illustrated through interviews by his son. “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” is also studied by other eighth-grade students at AMS.
Brown has been teaching German at AHS since 1994. He has taken student groups to Germany over the years, including one this past May. Brianna Kuchinic, a junior at AHS, and Jacob Maness and Philip Tyler, 2018 AHS graduates were on that trip.
The itinerary included an arrival in Frankfurt, then Eisenach and the Wartburg Castle, where Luther translated the New Testament into German. The AHS group then visited the village of Thuringen, where they stayed with families of students taking high school English classes.
They got the opportunity to go to Buchenwald, a working concentration camp during World War II. Munich, Salzburg, Berlin, Bergfelde and Cologne were destinations as well.
It was the chance to see a part of the world they might never have gotten to visit, these three young people said. Kuchinic’s brother had gone on the trip previously. Maness said he initially wanted to go because his friends were going.
Never to forget
But that 18-day adventure was more than a sight-seeing mission. They got to visit the Stolpersteines laid into the ground for Gutmann’s parents and put their hands on them, at Gutmann’s insistence.
The artist wants the brass-covered stones to be “polished” as people interact with them, Brown explained. “Just like they would with their neighbors. Sylvia wants us to touch the stones as if we are touching the hearts of her family.”
Tyler wants to someday go back to Germany to live and work there for a few years. Kuchinic said because of Gutmann, she has come to look at people more inclusively. Tyler won’t ever forget visiting the concentration camp.
“I had to walk away from the group to be alone because it was so surreal. It tore me up,” he said.
Brown, Hodson, Lay and these students are thankful Gutmann will be coming to this community again next week. She has traveled extensively and also has served as a docent at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She was flown to France by a New York newspaper to meet the woman who rescued her and her sisters from the camp.
Hodson finds it remarkable how this 79-year-old woman can get 13- and 14-year-olds to open up about themselves. She said Gutmann could have done as she was told when she came to the U.S.
The need to share
Gutmann shares how after arriving in the U.S. she wanted to tell her fellow classmates the story of her remarkable journey aboard a ship designed for cattle. Gutmann had taken the dress she had worn the entire month of the voyage to show-and-tell at her school.
But as she started to tell her story, the teacher stopped her. You are lying, Gutmann said she was told. Don’t ever tell that again, the teacher stressed.
Gutmann didn’t take that advice. She was not going to pretend what happened didn’t. She wasn’t going to forget her heritage.
But it wasn’t until this Holocaust survivor was in her 60s that she made a startling realization, Hodson said.
“She identifies as a lost child,” Hodson said of Gutmann. “She lost all of her childhood. She realized she was part of this group of people who didn’t have a childhood. She taps into something with these students that even people like their coaches can’t.”
When speaking to adults, Gutmann gets very political, Brown said. She recognizes that her parents were political refugees. They had applied to the U.S. but were never admitted.
She relates very closely with the children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border, Brown added. She sees in the Syrian crisis a similar oppressive regime abusing its people.
“I tied her first visit to some of the realities of our Alcoa history — segregation and Trail of Tears,” Brown said. “Teachers in Germany do not try to make comparisons of the Holocaust and other repressive regimes. They want their students to recognize that their government allowed this action in the past and their people committed these crimes. Germany today takes responsibility for its past.”
On past visits to Blount County, Brown and some of his students took Gutmann to Whitwell in Marion County, where students collected 6 million paperclips and made a memorial to the Holocaust survivors. Those paperclips represent the 6 million Jewish people who died. They also went to Blythe Ferry, where Cherokee were set upon the Trail of Tears.
Gutmann’s story didn’t end at the Holocaust. In her book, she talks about the life she has made for herself despite her great losses. The stone monuments are testaments to her own legacy.
“My students feel inspired by her,” Lay said. “They see how a person can rebuild themselves.”
Brown has taken five groups to Germany since meeting Gutmann. They always clean the Stolpersteine and lay flowers there.
“We do exactly what Herr Demnig wanted all along,” Brown explained. “We remember the victims where they used to live.”