Alter, Jetty Altstädter
Antwerp, Brussels, Belgium
Jetty (Yetty or Yetta) Altstädter Alter was born July 22, 1914 in Antwerp, Belgium to Isaac Altstädter and Balbina Sann Altstädter.
Ten-year-old Isaac Altstädter, his father, and 6 or 7 siblings had emigrated from Krakow to Antwerp around 1893 after the recent death of Isaac’s mother in childbirth.
The Sann family is named after a river in Poland. At one point, Balbina or her mother may have had an art gallery in Munich. Balbina had a brother, Moishe Sann.
Both families were very Orthodox. Isaac Altstädter, was one of the better-known members of the Antwerp community, highly respected. He was considered a talmid chacham, a very smart person, a very learned person. He was in the watch and diamond business.
Jetty had a brother Joseph (Jos), who emigrated to Palestine around 1932 with his wife, Debbie, and later went to Vineland, New Jersey. Ultimately, they ended up in Woodland Hills, California, but only after spending the early years of their retirement in/near Lausanne, Switzerland and Jerusalem.
Growing up, Jetty’s sons, Peter and Allen, almost never heard their parents talk about their experiences. “Many of the stories about my mother I found out from relatives after she passed away. My mother would say, ‘There’s nothing to talk about. I don’t want to talk about it.’” As Peter now says about each of these stories, “You just can’t make this stuff up!”
Peter decided to tell their stories now, particularly his mother’s amazing story, “Because my mother’s legacy is very important to me, so I’d like it to be preserved as a lesson for young people today…. It’s pretty simple. Never forget. Vigilance and diligence are important. Knowing your history. Knowing your heritage. Knowing where you came from and where your family comes from is so vital.” He added that “whenever people hear my mother’s story, they tell that it’s amazing. My response is simple. If you don’t have an amazing story, then you didn’t survive the Holocaust.”
Jetty decided even before she graduated from high school that she would go to college and medical school, an unusual aspiration for an Orthodox girl. She and her best friend, Bea Furstenberg, went to the University of Brussels and graduated from medical school in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Belgium. “As an aside, I do remember my mother telling me that, although she was one of the few women in her class, she took the best notes in first-year Zoology class and that many of the men borrowed her notes…. The occupation began in 1940, but the Nazis were not really rounding up Belgian Jews until 1942. However, different members of the family did get taken in for questioning and disappeared for days or weeks on end. After she graduated, Jetty didn’t wear the yellow star to identify herself as a Jew and she explained, ‘If you weren’t wearing the yellow star when you were supposed to, you better not be staying anywhere close to where you were living because someone, a kapo, would report you and you’d get the treatment.’
“One day, my mother came home from medical school and called for her parents, but there was no response. She looked around for the housekeeper, no response. Apparently, the cook wasn’t there either. She looked around, went downstairs, and, lo and behold everybody was in the basement, along with three SS who had managed to welcome themselves to my grandparents’ home. The SS had apparently been tipped off, correctly, by a kapo that my grandfather was storing diamonds for various businessmen in Antwerp. The obvious place to store the diamonds, naturally, would be in a safe. Of course, they were not stored in the safe because that would be where anybody would look. My mother and her parents knew where the diamonds were, wrapped up and hidden in a handbag of my grandmother’s up on the top floor of their home on Henrietta Strasse. So, first there was a discussion by the SS men in German, but everybody in my family spoke German and understood the discussion, whether they were going to have one SS stay with the three women and have two go with my grandfather to find those diamonds or would they have two stay with the women and one go with my grandfather.
“After some discussion, they decided to have two go with my grandfather and one stay with the three women because what could they do, really. As soon as they left with my grandfather to look for the diamonds, my mother said to the remaining guy from the SS, ‘I need to go to the bathroom. I just got home from (medical) school and I really need to go.’ He says, ‘You can’t go to the bathroom.’ So, they quibble back and forth for a minute or so and finally my mother says, ‘Listen if you are not going to let me go to the bathroom, I am going to go the bathroom right here on the floor. I was in school all day. I was on the train coming back from Brussels, I need to go to the bathroom.’ Finally, he asks her where the bathroom is and decides to let her go. Well, we all know my mother didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Incredibly, she went to get the diamonds. She went up to the top floor, got the bag out, took the diamonds, stuffed them in her bra and her girdle, and put the open handbag on the door. So, when my grandfather went up there, he would see that my mother had been there. The SS left and never got the diamonds.
“Soon, my grandfather was smuggled into Switzerland; my mother and her mother were to follow thereafter. But the border was closed, presumably by the Vichy French, and they remained in Belgium throughout the war…. Her father stayed in Switzerland and worked there. He had an arrangement with a non-Jew in Brussels that they would exchange false business transactions every month as a way to send money solely for the purpose of allowing my mother and her mother to sustain themselves…. My mother and grandmother left Antwerp and were in Brussels, hiding in plain sight. They had false papers, false names. They did not travel as mother and daughter. They traveled as aunt and niece and lived in an apartment building, one upstairs, the other downstairs. So, if somebody was looking for mother and daughter, that’s not them, they are aunt and niece…. My mother’s name was Mademoiselle Henri, Miss Henry. She was blonde so that probably helped her not to be discovered. My grandmother, whom I’m told was a little bit of a hypochondriac, didn’t go out that much anyway, so it worked out perfectly.
“Earlier when they decided to leave their home in Antwerp, they found their way to a church in Brussels; that was arranged through the White Brigade, which was an underground, anti-fascist group made up of Jews and non-Jews. My mother never told us whether she was a member of the White Brigade or was just friendly with a lot of the White Brigade members…. They were there at the church for maybe a month or so, until the priest found them an empty place in an apartment building…. When they got to the apartment, my mother, in French, said to the landlady, ‘Listen, we have some ration coupons, would you mind getting our rations for us?’ The significance of that was if you were Jewish you couldn’t get ration coupons. Obviously, this was my mother’s way of letting the landlady know that we’re okay people, we’re not Jews. The landlady said, ‘I would be happy to.’ And the second week, my mother does the same thing; and the third week, again. Then the landlady said, ‘I’m happy to do it, but I do want to let you know that the priest at the church you were at is my son.’
“Shortly after, my mother was walking down the street in Brussels and, on the other side of the street, she spots a fellow medical school classmate whom she knew was a Nazi supporter and anti-Semite. He apparently spots her too and crosses the street. My mother decides not to cross the street to avoid him because that would look suspicious. So, she goes right up to the guy and he says to her, ‘Jetty, what are you doing here?’ And she says, ‘What do you mean? What are you doing here?’ He says to her, ‘Well you’re Jewish, right?’ She says, ‘Yeah, what about it?’ He says, ‘Well you know they’re rounding up the Jews here and you shouldn’t be here.’ And she says, ‘Well why not?’ And he says, ‘Because you’re not supposed to be here. You should be arrested.’ And she says to him, ‘You apparently don’t read the newspaper very carefully.’ He says, ‘What are you talking about?’ She says, ‘You know they are rounding up Jews but they made an exception for doctors. They are not rounding up the doctors.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ She said, ‘You better pay attention to that’ and went on her way. She made up that story on the spot. Pretty amazing.”
When she died, Jetty’s cousins, the Goldbergs, insisted on coming to the funeral, although they had not been in much contact for decades. They told their story of survival with Jetty’s help – and said this is the least we can do. “He and his sister, who were about six and four at the time, were still in Germany. It was 1940 or so. Jetty concocted this plan to get them out of Germany successfully. She got false medical papers along with her papers indicating that she was a doctor and they were in dire health and needed to be treated in Belgium by some specialist. She took the train from Brussels to Germany, extracted the two kids, brought them to Brussels and somehow, they were hidden and survived the war.”
Jetty also saved the lives of her two teenaged cousins, Rachel and Jetta Alster, the daughters of Isaac Altstädter’ sister, Myriam Altstädter, and Nathan Alster. “They were still living in Antwerp and some of the family, including their father, had been rounded up. One Shabbos morning, probably in 1942, they heard a knock on the door from their neighbors, who were Turkish non-Jews and friendly. ‘You might want to know, we just heard that the SS will be here within an hour.’ They were prepared for that to happen and immediately left and went to a safe house. ‘Oh, your mother arranged that, also through the White Brigade,’ Rachel explained to me years later, around 2010. They were in the safe house for a while. Then they went to a convent near the French border for maybe 18 months. That too was arranged by my mother, with the help of the White Brigade. The mother superior at the convent was just terrific to them, a wonderful, compassionate person. From time to time, the mother superior would say, slyly: ‘We’re getting a visitor tomorrow; you probably want to work on the other side of the convent tomorrow, so no one comes to see you.’ They were so indebted to the mother superior that, after the War, they visited her every year on her birthday until she died, for more than 40 years.”
Rachel married (Maurice) Bernard Silber and Jetta married Salomon Mantel. Their father, Nathan Alster (the son of Moische Jaakov Alster and Bertha Sudwarts) and their siblings, Osias Adolf, Helene, Malvina, and Moses Jacob all died in the Holocaust. Another of Isaac Altstädter’s brothers, Loebel Altstädter (m. Freida Lion), and his son Marcel also died.
Peter also tells the story that he learned from his cousin, Joern Sann, about Balbina’s brother, Moishe Sann, who lived in Amsterdam, Holland with his family. “In 1942 or 1943, Moishe kept bugging Joern to go to Paris, even though it was occupied. Joern thought it was quite silly and not reasonable to go to Paris. He didn’t know why his father kept insisting on going there. Finally, it was agreed that they would go, by train. When they arrived, Moishe wanted to go to the detention camp to see his cousin Booberman – and Joern finally agreed. ‘It’s okay there, said Uncle Moishe. Everybody is in street clothes. It’s like a holding place. You can walk in, visit… they’re allowed to have visitors and we can walk out.’ They went to this camp maybe 20 or 30 kilometers outside of Paris. The detention camp was supervised, guarded by Moroccans and Algerians from the French Protectorates. When you go in, you have to show your identification, you’re given a card, do your visit, and you can leave. So, they got their card. It said Sann, last name is Sann, comma, Moses, Moises, et for the French and – and Joern. And they walk in. They are visiting with cousin Booberman. And Uncle Moishe takes his pen and ‘adjusts’ the card that they were given. Sann, comma, Moses, et Joern, and after Moses he puts another comma – as if there were three people – Sann, Moses, and Joern. They walk Booberman out of the detention camp with them. Saved his life.”
Jetty couldn’t and didn’t leave Belgium until after her father came back from Switzerland because her mother, who was somewhat sickly, couldn’t have been left alone for any extended period of time. Jetty emigrated to the United States in 1945 and did her internship and residency, then practiced medicine as an anesthesiologist. She worked at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York from 1956 until she retired as deputy chief in 1992 or 1993. “Then, we thought that Mom would ‘retire,’ but, quickly, she was bored and she took a job running a methadone clinic in Queens for only three days a week. At that time, she was about 78 or 79 years old, but looked about 15 years younger. Unfortunately, she pricked herself accidentally with a syringe used to treat the patients at the clinic – and things went downhill from there. She began to develop dementia, got progressively worse, had hepatitis too – and died from complications from dementia in 2003 at the age of 88+.”
Jetty’s husband, Igor Ignace Alter was born in 1910 in Lvov (Lemberg), Ukraine. He received an undergraduate university degree in Krakow and then graduated from medical school in Prague in 1939. After graduating, he did not return to Lvov. His entire family was killed during the Holocaust. “We don’t know exactly what happened. His brother, rather than be captured or give in to the Nazis, apparently, committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train in Lvov.
“My father, probably seeking the benefit of not having to change his name at all because it was not a very Jewish sounding name, decided that the best place to go with false papers – and the same name, was a place that no one would expect a Jew to go – to Leipzig, Germany. So, he went to Leipzig, right in the center of the storm. Obviously, nobody would think you were Jewish, your name is Igor Alter – and who would be stupid enough to go to Germany if you were a Jew. And that’s what my dad counted on…. After he got there, he also did a little due-diligence and discovered that, in a suburb of Leipzig, the head of the SS was some guy whose last name was Alter and he immediately, and as often as it was useful, claimed that guy as his cousin. So, whenever anybody said ‘Herr Commandant Alter,’ he would respond ‘That’s my cousin.’ That worked well for a good while, during his internship and residency. As I recall, he actually became ‘chief resident.’ And then one day, two SS guys came in and said, ‘Herr Doctor, we know you’re lying to us. We know you are a Jew and we’re going to arrest you.’ And they started to beat him and he said, ‘Beat me if you want but Commandant Alter is my cousin. When he finds out what you did, the ones who are going to get in trouble are you, not me.’ They didn’t believe him, but said that they would check and come back. Presumably, they went to check, but my father immediately left Germany.
“He went to Italy. I’m not really sure why. One reason was that he spoke Italian (and 9 other languages; Jetty spoke 6). He was there for a few years. He was a very good amateur tennis player and, among other things, ended up playing tennis with King Farouk of Egypt…. And somehow my father also ended up, while in Italy, being in counter-intelligence for the United States Government. Before he arrived in the United States, and although never having never set foot in the United States, he was a captain in the United States Army…. I also remember my dad getting called up to serve as a doctor at a base someplace in New York during the Korean War, right around the end of 1952, around Hanukah time.”
Igor was a general practitioner, with a specialty in OB-GYN. Igor and Jetty separated in December, 1955 and divorced in March, 1956.
Date of Interview: July 29, 2019
Length of Interview: 52:38 minutes
Interviewee: Peter Alter, son of Jetty Altstädter Alter
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Ted Nickel