Bernard Otterman, a child survivor of the Holocaust who went on to become a professor of engineering and head a successful real estate company in New York City, died early on the morning of Nov. 14 at his home in Old Westbury. He was 80.
Otterman died after a five-year battle with metastatic throat cancer, and spent the day before he died surrounded by family and friends while attending his newest grandson’s brit milah ceremony in New York City, his son, Michael, said.
Otterman was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1937. He was saved from the perils of war by his mother, Dina, who escaped with him from the Lodz, Warsaw and Pietrokov ghettos, smuggled him into a work camp in Radom where conditions were better and, finally, pulled him from a line of people boarding a train to Auschwitz when the Radom camp was liquidated. Through her determination, they survived the rest of the war in the Polish countryside, and were reunited in 1945 with Otterman’s father, David.
Bernard considered himself “a brand plucked out of the fire.”
“There are two reasons I’m alive, the courage of my mother and father. And it is just a miracle,” he told the Herald in 2002. “There is no other way of explaining it.”
After immigrating to Providence, Rhode Island, Otterman studied mechanical engineering at City College of New York, UCLA and SUNY Stony Brook, where he obtained his Ph.D. He worked on the Apollo Lunar Module for Grumman and became a professor at Northeastern and Hofstra universities.
“As a young man and Holocaust survivor, one reason I decided to pursue a Ph.D. was my hope that university life would give me the freedom to repair the world and be active in civic activities for the greater good,” Otterman wrote in a recent biography, when he joined the board of the University of the Middle East.
He later became partner of a real estate management company in Queens, New York, founded by his parents in the 1960s.
Despite success, Otterman could not shake the Holocaust memories that haunted him, he told the Herald in a 2002 interview.
“There’s no getting past it,” he said. “Every Holocaust survivor is really a marked person. You put it into a meta-stable equilibrium. Something small can bring back a memory.”
Otterman moved from Merrick, where he had lived since 1975, to Old Westbury in 1993. That same year, he began transforming the images of Nazi atrocities that he carried in his mind into poems. The process proved painful, but self-enlightening.
In the mid-1990s, Otterman began writing Holocaust-inspired poetry and fiction, and later, founded a family foundation to build more peaceful and healthy societies across the globe.
A number of Otterman’s short stories explore the implications of the Holocaust and have won first prizes in literary competitions. They were collected and published in the recently released volume, “Inmate 1818 and Other Stories.” His first novel, “Self-Deliverance: The Death and Life of Arthur Koestler,” was published in 2015.
Otterman also lectured about his background and literary work at universities, libraries and community groups.
He is survived by his wife, Sandra; his brother, Harry (born after WWII); his three children, Michelle, Sharon and Michael; and five grandchildren.
Speaking with the Herald in 2002, Otterman said proudly that each of his children is dedicated, as many children of Holocaust survivors are, to the idea that “the world should be a little better.”
Donations may be made in his memory to the Otterman Foundation, Treat the Pain and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Research Fund via www.otterman.org, www.treatthepain.org and https://giving.mskcc.org/