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Holocaust survivor turned American soldier adds role of memoirist

Tuesday, February 08, 2000

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's said that everyone has a story to tell. The problem often is finding someone to listen.

Fritz Ottenheimer's story is more remarkable than most: a German native who with his family escaped the Holocaust, only to return as a member of the U.S. Army during the conflict's waning months. Not only has the Forest Hills resident found a way to tell his story through his book, "Escape and Return," (Cathedral Publishing, $14.95), but people are listening, too.

The book had a limited printing - 500 copies - and the publisher went out of business once the book was completed, but Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and Ernestine Bradley, wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley, have read it and been complimentary. The book was reprinted privately in Germany, where Ottenheimer returns often to speak about the Holocaust. And through his volunteer work with the Holocaust Survivors Organization of Pittsburgh, Ottenheimer has spread his message locally.

At its core, the autobiographical book is about Ottenheimer's lifelong psychological and emotional journey - from a youth who could trace his German ancestors back 300 years to an adolescent fleeing for his life to a young American soldier in a unit "de-Nazifying" captured areas of the Third Reich to a veteran reflecting on his life.

Ottenheimer, 74, moved to Pittsburgh in 1950 and worked for Westinghouse for 30 years before retiring in 1987. Originally, the book was to be a gift to his children and grandchildren to provide answers to questions about his life. After spending nearly five years on the project, he gave the manuscript to acquaintances, who urged him to have it published. Two dozen rejections followed until Cathedral Publishing, part of the University of Pittsburgh, agreed to publish the book.

Cathedral Publishing was a 2 1/2-year-long university experiment envisioned as an outlet for nonacademic books. Although it published 12 books, a university spokesman said the overall success was marginal and Cathedral Publishing was shut down.

Ottenheimer said that even if "Escape and Return" had not been published, he learned valuable lessons from the project.

"I guess I learned to strike a balance," he said. "Before I wrote the book, I had all these disparate memories - some good and some bad - about that time. It was kind of a big jumble.

"By setting these things down and weighing the good against the bad, I was able to get a better vision about what happened and the relative significance of the events and how they affected my life."

Ottenheimer's family lived in the southwestern German city of Constance on the border with Switzerland. According to Ottenheimer, the city's small Jewish population avoided many of the atrocities visited upon other locales both because of its successful assimilation with Christians and the proximity to Switzerland.

Ottenheimer's father, Ludwig, a decorated German infantry veteran of World War I, was a menswear store owner. But with Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the Ottenheimers' fortunes dropped. Customers stopped shopping at the store, and it had to be sold. The town's synagogue was burned.

The Ottenheimers helped smuggle between 200 and 300 Austrian and German Jews into Switzerland. But the day after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass in November 1938 when nearly every synagogue in Germany was destroyed, the elder Ottenheimer was arrested by the Gestapo and held for a month at Dachau concentration camp.

In May 1939, the family received permission to immigrate to the United States. Like other newly arrived families in New York City, the parents struggled to find jobs. Fritz had his own battles in school but eventually was accepted into a prestigious science high school.

Following graduation, Ottenheimer decided to enlist in the Army. Since he wasn't an American citizen, he had to sign a waiver to enlist.

Ottenheimer arrived in Europe in March 1945. Near Leipzig he came across his first Nazi work camp, where he saw the remains of 290 people who had been burned alive in a barracks. Later, at the Flossenburg concentration camp near the Czechoslovakian border, he conducted an interview with a kapo, a privileged prisoner who was appointed to be in charge of other prisoners.

Ottenheimer asked him: "Did you ever kill any people who worked for you?"

"Yes," the kapo answered.

"How many?"

"Oh, about eight or 10 - maybe more. I don't remember."

"How did you kill them?"

"With rocks. Sometimes with a club."

"Why would you kill a man?"

"Always for a good reason. They didn't obey the rules."

"What rules, for example?"

"They didn't work hard enough, generally. Some didn't keep clean."

"You killed some people because they didn't keep clean?"

"Yes, that is correct."

"Do you think a man deserves to be killed if he doesn't keep clean?"

Ottenheimer writes that the man stared quizzically at him before answering, "Of course. The rule was to keep clean. They didn't obey the rules."

A question throughout "Escape and Return" is why the general German populace didn't take a stand against the "Final Solution" and other Nazi efforts.

"Where were the moral leaders, the role models, who could have done something?" Ottenheimer writes. "The professionals, the educated people, were the ones that the ordinary people might have looked to for guidance. But they were busy trying to get into positions from which their Jewish colleagues had been fired. Many others found it advantageous to do Hitler's work. There still remains the question of how Hitler was able to find thousands of enthusiastic murderers, not only in Germany but in the conquered nations as well."

"On the other hand," Ottenheimer said in an interview, "I am afraid what I noticed was not a weakness of the German people but a weakness of human nature.

"We tend to ask ourselves, how does this affect me [or] how does this affect my family? And that if it's someone else's family [affected], we tend not to get as excited as we should."

"Escape and Return" is available at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Pinsker's Judaica Center, Bradley Books, Kaufmann's Downtown and the University of Pittsburgh Book Center.

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