by Len Lear
Judy Meisel, 86, Holocaust survivor, civil rights activist and subject of the documentary film “Tak for Alt: Survival of a Human Spirit” (“Thanks for Everything” in Danish), has spent her entire adult life campaigning against racism and every form of intolerance. Meisel raised her family in West Mt. Airy from 1950 to 1983 and taught important life lessons to countless students at the Germantown Jewish Center.
Meisel has lived in southern California for three decades, but because she still has so many friends and admirers in northwest Philadelphia, her dear friend, Marjorie Gleit of Ambler (formerly of Mt. Airy), thought that everyone who knew Judy in Mt. Airy would like to know how she is doing today. “Last spring she unfortunately fell and broke four ribs,” said Gleit. “After recuperating for a few weeks, it was decided she should move to an assisted living facility in Minnesota, near her son, Michael.
“However, before leaving Santa Barbara, her many wonderful friends created The Judy Meisel Scholarship for students of any denomination or race who demonstrate an interest in human rights. That community has truly treasured Judy for over 30 years and wants to always remember her as she will always remember them. She easily invited over 500 friends, family and strangers to their home for Shabbat dinner.
“More good news: Judy is beyond a survivor! She is fully recovered, regained her strength and is now in the independent living part of this complex. She has her own kitchen and is thrilled with her lovely two-bedroom apartment! The weather is hardly like sunny California, but she is dealing and has already spoken in nearby places (about her experiences). Once again Judy will make a difference.”
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 German 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 Nazi-occupied 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. The sisters 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.
Any former students or friends of Judy who would like to communicate with her should write to firstname.lastname@example.org or send notes by U.S. Mail to Len Lear at the Local. All notes will be forwarded to Judy. “Please understand if you do not receive a response,” said Gleit, “It is because Judy’s hands are not in good shape, and she is not good with the computer. Still, in your heart you will know you warmed Judy’s heart — the greatest gift of all.” Contributions can be made to: The Judy Meisel Scholarship, c/o Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, P.O. Box 3620, Santa Barbara, CA 93130