Gutmann remembers father's Holocaust experience

Kurt Gutmann, President Amy Gutmann's father, escaped Germany and had a 'profound influence' on his daughter

· January 30, 2013, 7:46 pm

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President Gutmann is shown here at a young age with her father in Monroe, NY . Gutmann’s father helped his family survive by escaping Nazi Germany early on. To this day, Gutmann cites her father as an important influence in her life.


In 1934, a then-college student named Kurt Gutmann realized that something was about to happen in his hometown of Feuchtwangen, Germany.

Kurt, who was boarding at college in Nuremberg at the time, had been looking on as a Christian family with whom he was staying saluted a group of Hitler youth in the street.

He’d been close with the family and told them that, “If you of all people are doing this, what is this country coming to?”

The youngest of five children, Kurt quickly told his parents and siblings that they had to flee. And just like that, the Gutmanns left Germany and made their way to India.

Although Kurt died in 1966, much of his legacy lives on today with his daughter, Penn President Amy Gutmann.

“My father had a profound influence on me beyond being a great dad. He was a model of courage and beyond all integrity,” Gutmann said. “He drove home to me with not so much his words, but with his deeds, what it means to be courageous and how important it is to recognize that individuals can make a very big difference by what they do.”

Gutmann especially praised her father’s “farsightedness” for acting on a hunch to move his entire family.

“It wasn’t something that anybody could expect at the time — especially from somebody in his early 20s who was the youngest in his family,” she said.

While Kurt left Germany at the very outset of the Holocaust, life was not easy for his parents in the time leading up to their departure. The family owned a store near their home, and — like other Jews at the time — had to display a yellow star in their window to indicate that they were Jewish.

After the star was put up, some in the town began to boycott the store, Gutmann said.

While Gutmann was the first in her family to earn a college degree, her father studied metallurgy during his time in Nuremberg. He worked with metals when he first arrived in India, as well as when he came to the United States more than a decade later.

“It’s true that his whole family would have disappeared from the face of the earth had it not been for what he did,” Gutmann said.

Last year, Gutmann’s memories of her father played a large role in her decision to bring one of the world’s largest Holocaust archives to Penn. In April, she announced a new partnership with the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Archive — a nonprofit created in 1994 by prominent film director Steven Spielberg.

The Shoah archives, which are accessible through Penn’s library system, contain about 52,000 video testimonials of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust.

“Bringing the Shoah Foundation archives here was something that I hope I would have done anyway, but for me, it was just so obvious that it’s important to have these archives at Penn because of what you can learn from people who’ve had experiences and acted upon them like my father did,” Gutmann said.

Director of Public Services for Penn Libraries Marjorie Hassen said that the archives are especially unique because of the modern-day lessons they can teach.

“The fact that President Gutmann has this special connection makes it even more meaningful that we we’re able to provide this resource,” she added.

English professor Al Filreis, who teaches a course on representations of the Holocaust in literature and film every other fall semester, added that the archives “belong at Penn.”

“This is obviously a generation of people who are dying out, and it’s crucially important that anybody who was involved in the story needs now to be able to tell the story,” he said.

For her part, Gutmann said the archives are yet another way of never forgetting her father’s story.

“I was so much more privileged than my parents were,” she said. “I do feel an internal drive to keep what [my father] did alive, to never forget.”

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