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Not Jewish, but still a Holocaust survivor

Reidar Dittman was saved and captured by Nazi Germany in 1943. Professor emeritus from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., Dittman has several stories from his time as a member of the Norwegian resistance during World War II, and will share th...

Reidar Dittman was saved and captured by Nazi Germany in 1943.

Professor emeritus from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., Dittman has several stories from his time as a member of the Norwegian resistance during World War II, and will share them today at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Dittman is the keynote speaker for this year's Baeumler-Kaplan Holocaust Commemoration Program at UMD.

"As we say over and over again, we can't forget," said Marsha Eisenberg, a member of the Baeumler-Kaplan commission and immediate past president of Temple Israel. It's important to more than Jewish people, she added.

"There were many of us in concentration camps that saw what was happening," said Dittman, who is not Jewish. "It's important that people not on the Jewish side remember this event and provide proof that it happened."

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Dittman was arrested several times during the war, and was sent to Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany, for 20 months.

Studying musicology, he was taking a final examination in Latin in an auditorium at a university in Norway. Students were told to study four books over the course of a year to prepare themselves.

"I had been wasting so much time because I had been in and out of jail," he said. "I decided to read only three of the four books."

When it was his turn, Dittman ascended the stage and faced the others waiting to take the test. He was to be tested on one of the four choices. He drew the Gallic War by Julius Caesar, the book he hadn't read. He recited a passage in Latin anyway, despite not knowing how to explain it.

"I didn't have a clue what was on the page," he said. "I was going to clear my throat and tell them, 'gentlemen, I believe I want to take this examination next year.' Before that ... the eyes of the entire audience -- that had been fixed on me -- shifted. Into the auditorium streamed German soldiers ... from the back, from the sides and from behind me on the stage."

A soldier jumped onto the stage and said everyone was under arrest, saving Dittman from failing his test.

"Except that of course I ended up in a concentration camp, so it was very costly," he said.

That camp was built near the home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German poet and writer during part of the enlightenment movement. Dittman, who has a love of German literature, titled his speech "The Birds Keep Silent in the Forest," after lines from a famous Goethe poem about the forest Buchenwald was built in.

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"When we met him he recited lines from that poem," said Deborah Petersen-Perlman, a UMD professor, director of UMD's office of equal opportunity and chairwoman of the Baeumler-Kaplan commission. "It had some poignant meaning for him."

Dittman, who taught at St. Olaf for 48 years, was chosen to speak because he was a political prisoner and his Norwegian background is similar to many in the area.

"He has a different kind of story than we've presented before," Petersen-Perlman said. "There is some debate about who is a survivor; can we call non-Jewish individuals survivors? He was at a concentration camp. While it wasn't an extermination camp, it wasn't a wonderful experience. I believe he's earned the title 'survivor.' "

Dittman said there are many small but loud groups that claim the Holocaust was a hoax, citing the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and actor Mel Gibson as two who have proclaimed that belief.

"It's part of a pervasive anti-Semitism that exists throughout the world and now in the Middle East," he said. "In a sense I am issuing a warning."

Petersen-Perlman said she read a recent story about a school in England questioning whether it should teach about the Holocaust and risk offending the Muslim population, which she said was "appalling." And because of subsequent genocides and what's happening in Darfur, Sudan, where thousands have been killed since 2003, efforts to tell the story need to persist, she said.

JANA HOLLINGSWORTH covers higher education. She can be reached at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com .

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