Judy Meisel, Holocaust survivor, activist, dies at 91

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Of the thousands of people I have interviewed over more than 50 years for various newspapers and magazines, the most remarkable human being was Judy Meisel, who raised her family in West Mt. Airy from 1950 to 1983. A Holocaust survivor whose relatives were virtually all murdered in concentration camps during World War II, Judy never let hatred sully her moral compass. She spent her entire adult life speaking to audiences about the need for love, kindness, mutual respect and reconciliation.

The extraordinary but humble civil rights activist died Nov. 3 at her home in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. She was 91. Born Judith Beker Cohen on Feb. 7, 1929, to Mina and Osser Beker in Lithuania, Meisel survived the Holocaust in the Kovno ghetto and later the Stutthoff concentration camp, where her mother died in a gas chamber. Meisel and her sister, Rachel, escaped during a death march in 1945 as the Russians advanced toward the camp.

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. 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."

Meisel was 16 when she was liberated in Denmark. More than 75 years later, she provided key witness testimony in recent German indictments and trials of SS guards from Stutthoff. “Judy’s grandson, Ben Cohen, went to Germany two times to testify at the trial of a Nazi guard who was at Judy’s camp,” said Marjorie Gleit, of Ambler, who was once a student of Judy's at the Germantown Jewish Centre. “Ben read Judy’s words to the guard at the trial. She was not well enough to attend. It was very powerful.”

Despite the unspeakable horrors Judy had to endure during the war, her powerful messages to students in countless schools all over the U.S. for decades were 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 Mt. Airy.

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 over the decades 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.

There was a private graveside service for Judy due to Covid-19, with a larger memorial tribute planned post-pandemic. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The Judy Project on her website, which will continue to share her story.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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