Story of survival

Alcoa High students get personal view of history

By Christian McKinney

For Blount Today

Life today is continually a blessing, said Sylvia Ruth Gutmann.

Gutmann survived the events of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Also known as Frou Gutmann, she recently made a special visit to the students at Alcoa High School to thank them for a donation they sponsored in her family’s memory.

Gutmann shared her life story at two morning assemblies to inform students about the history of her experience in the Holocaust and show how she is honoring the memory of her family members who were killed by the Nazis.

After an introduction by Ken Brown, a German language teacher at Alcoa, six students lit candles and read statements from the engravings from the memorials of Gutmann’s parents and grandparents. These memorials are a part of a project begun by an organization associated with the Kreuzberg Museum in Berlin, Germany, and a German artist by the name of Gunther Demnig.

Brown said Frou Gutmann recently returned from Berlin where she had researched her family’s life and placed a memorial in memory of her murdered family members. Through a grant from the Alcoa City Schools Foundation, students sponsored the memorial for Frau Gutmann’s grandfather, Marcus Gutmann.

The Memorial is a 4-inch square brass plaque placed in the cobblestones of the sidewalk in front of the home Herr Gutmann and his wife shared in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. It is called a Stolperstein, German for a stumbling block.

Herr Demnig has placed more than 10,000 stones in over 200 German towns and cities. The stones cause a passerby to stop, bend over and read the name of a victim of Nazi oppression. Demnig has said that a person is not forgotten if his name is remembered.

Students and teachers sat in silence as Frou Gutmann shared the story of her struggle as a very young Jewish girl living under the regime of Nazi Germany. “I’m here because I have an obligation, a commitment to the people who rescued me, because they didn’t look away, (they) saved my life.”

Gutmann told of how even as a child she was moved in and out of the Nazi death camps and how her life was spared by no less than a miracle. Her story then took the audience to 1943, where her situation allowed her to be bicycled by the French Resistance to the border of France and Switzerland.

Switzerland at that time had closed their borders to fleeing refugees. Miraculously, at the closed gate, a guard’s wife saw that Gutmann was sick with diphtheria and insisted that she cross over and go to a hospital for care.

From that pivotal defining moment, Frou Gutmann’s life was spared, and she made it a point during the assembly to talk about how precious life is and that every moment is fleeting.

“Everything is petty,” Gutmann said. “You’ll get through it, you’ll get over it.”

In a special potluck dinner and ceremony the night before, Gutmann shared her historic struggle with students as well as parents and other Blount County residents in the auditorium at Alcoa High School.

“It’s a good cause and a good way to remember the Holocaust. This is as close as we get to being there,” said Matt Dixon, a student in Ken Brown’s German language class.

James Chinn, another of Brown’s students, said, “It’s a good experience for us that we can pass down to future generations.”

Gutmann said that when others ask how she can believe in God, the Holocaust survivor said God produces miracles. “My life is a miracle,” she said.

In her closing statements, Frou Gutmann exhorted the listeners that each one of them could save a life.

“You can save a life by putting your love out into the world. We so need it, we are desperate for love,” she said. “I was given a second life. Don’t waste it. Don’t waste a single moment.”

Ken Brown summarized the event. “I want to take the idea of the memorial to let students know that oppression is oppression wherever you are,” he said.

The program and work was a combined effort of Brown and three other teachers at Alcoa High School: Minda Cedeno, art; Chad Coker, English 9; and Paul Talley, AP US history.

For more information on Frau Gutmann and her life and work, visit

© 2008 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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