by Len Lear
Judy Meisel, 82, has lived through horrors that most people on earth cannot even imagine, but the inspirational former long-time Mt. Airy resident remains an eternal optimist, working tirelessly for 50 years to promote peace, understanding and tolerance among all peoples.
Meisel, who will be speaking about her experiences in a series of public appearances in the Chestnut Hill area in the next two weeks, is a human rights activist and Holocaust survivor who lived and raised her family in West Mt. Airy from 1950 to 1983.
Judy was born in a small town in Lithuania, the youngest of three children in a middle-class family, but her father died in 1938, one year before the Russians occupied Lithuania. The Russians discriminated against Jewish residents, but that was nothing compared to what happened when the Germany army invaded in June of 1941.
“Later we heard by word-of-mouth that all of the Jewish children with whom I had shared a cabin had been taken out and shot by the Nazis,” recalled Judy. “It was impossible for me as a 10-year-old to realize that I would never see my friends again.
“A few weeks later, in the middle of the night, there was a knock at the door. All of our windows were smashed. The Gestapo was in our house. They dragged us outside and threw us into trucks. Neighbors cheered and threw rocks at us as we left my house of childhood for the last time.
“There were hundreds of trucks with other Jews. As we crossed the bridge to a town called Shlabotka, we saw boys leaving a Yeshiva carrying Torahs in their arms. The students were thrown into a large pit and shot. As long as I live, I will never forget the moans and screams of those boys and the men, women and children who were thrown in with them.”
After more unspeakable horrors, Judy wound up in a ghetto in the city of Kovno, where “people died by the hundreds of starvation. The Germans would dig trenches and slide the dead bodies down a shaft into the trenches, where the bodies would pile up. Once a week the Germans would fill the trenches with dirt.
“We children would stand and watch the bodies slide down. It became a gruesome game of counting the bodies and running to tell our families who we had recognized as dead. Occasionally the Germans would add to their fun by including a few live people.”
In late 1942 Judy was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. “We were ordered to remove all our clothes and shoes. Gold teeth were simply yanked out…It was winter, and I can remember standing in the snow without shoes. After a long time I felt no pain…”
Judy and her sister, Rachel, and 3,000 other Jews were transported in June, 1944, to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. After seven more months of unspeakable suffering and cruelty, they were taken on a death march with many other inmates, who were taken to be massacred. However, allied bombs began to fall, and both guards and inmates scattered. While trying to run away from the death march, Judy nevertheless stopped to assist a German parachutist when she saw he was shot. “After all, I’m still human,” she told her sister.
That night, Judy and Rachel played dead in a ditch. After many more harrowing experiences, the sisters crawled across the frozen Vistula River to a Catholic convent that took them in. Judy and Rachel left the convent and found work in Poland with a woman farm owner who regularly beat them. (Rachel still has scars today from the beatings.)
They escaped from the farm and wound up on a boat to Denmark, where they were liberated on May 5, 1945, “the most wonderful day of my life.” Two Danish angels, Paula and Sven Jensen, took the sisters in and cared for them.
One Danish woman Judy met “broke down crying. Her son had been hung in Copenhagen for saving two Jewish families…Rachel and I spent four-and-a-half years in Denmark. Those were wonderful years, and I could never repay the Danes for all the goodness they bestowed upon me.
“At the end of the war, I was 15 years old and weighed 47 pounds. I spent a year-and-a-half in a Danish hospital. I cannot say enough about the Danish people. They saved countless lives during the war while constantly risking their own lives.”
Sadly, Judy’s mother was killed in the Stutthof concentration camp two weeks before the end of WW II. Despite the horrors Judy had to endure, her powerful messages to students in countless schools all over the U.S. for decades have been filled with hope and forgiveness but not bitterness.
Judy arrived in Philadelphia in 1950.One year earlier she had married Gabriel Cohen, who had gone to Palestine in 1947 to fight in the Israeli War of Independence. They had three children — Michael, who now lives in Minneapolis; Mina, who lives in California, and Debbie, who currently lives in Maryland.
Judy eventually divorced and married Fred Meisel. In 1983 the couple moved from Mt. Airy to Santa Barbara, California, to be near Fred’s family. Judy had earned a degree in early childhood education at Temple University and was a nursery school teacher at the Germantown Jewish Centre.
In the early 1960s Judy saw a TV report of the Folcroft race riot in Delaware County, near the Phila. International Airport. She said to herself, “Here I was in the City of Brotherly Love, and it was like Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938; nobody was doing anything about it.”
So Judy went to Folcroft to help the Baker family, an African American family who had been attacked by a white mob, and brought their children to her home and safety. That incident changed her life. It so moved and affected her that it has resulted in two movies about her fight to survive and caused her to literally speak to thousands of students about the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust.
Judy was even invited to have dinner with Dr. Martin Luther King before he was a nationally known civil rights leader. Later she marched with him in D.C. — both memorable highlights in her life.
A one-hour documentary film about Judy’s life, “Tak for Alt: Survival of a Human Spirit” (Danish for “Thank you for Everything”), will be shown Thursday, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m., at the Ambler Theater, 108 E. Butler Ave. (215-646-2550; after the film, which is free, Judy will speak and answer questions.)
According to Judy, “The film underscores that the Holocaust is not just a historical event or Jewish issue. Unfortunately, acts of intolerance continue across the world today, impacting people of varying colors, religions, political affiliations and sexual orientation. There is much work still to be done.”
During her two weeks back in Philadelphia, Judy will also speak at Arcadia University, 450 S. Easton Rd., Glenside (215-572-2900), on Monday, Nov. 7, 5 to 7:30p.m.; at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; at La Salle College High School, 8605 Cheltenham Ave., Wyndmoor (215-233-2911), on Thursday, Nov. 10, 9:30 a.m., and at Bishop McDevitt High School, 125 Royal Ave., Wyncote (215-887-5575) on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 10 a.m.
Presently Judy is 82 years young and still resides with Fred in Santa Barbara, where “she is treasured,” according to her good friend, Marge Gleit, 67. Judy’s sister, Rachel, is still alive in Canada, and a brother, Abe, also survived the Holocaust and is currently living in Canada, but 146 of Judy’s relatives, including 43 children, were murdered in the Holocaust.
Marge Gleit, a long-time friend and former student of Judy’s in Mt. Airy, contributed to this article. Portions were also taken from an article in the Local by Michael Cohen, Judy’s son, on Dec. 18. 1975. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.