Judy Meisel told her story to a room filled with Catholic school teachers: She spoke of how she was taken from her native Lithuania to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland; how she managed to escape a death march after Allied aircraft mistakenly bombed them; and how she finally fled to Denmark, where a couple nursed her back to health. The teachers listened to her tale so they could take the lessons they'd learned back to their Catholic-school classrooms throughout Pennsylvania.
Meisel's talk, held last week at Archbishop Carroll High School, was a continuation of the Anti-Defamation League's "Bearing Witness" program that started this past summer. It's geared to provide educators with information and training on how to teach their students about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The "Bearing Witness" workshops, which will take place annually, were organized by ADL assistant regional director for education Randi Boyette; the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's director of curriculum and instruction, Dr. Louis P. DeAngelo; and assistant director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Sister Josephine Kase.
The four-day summer workshops took place at the Dominican Retreat House in Elkins Park. Teachers attended lectures on the history of anti-Semitism, the Catholic Church and the Holocaust, as well as the future of Catholic-Jewish relations. Two sessions were held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Tak for Alt ("Thanks for Everything"), a documentary that tells Meisel's story, was also shown as part of their activities.
Last week, Meisel gently related her story to the rapt crowd of educators gathered at Archbishop Carroll. She understands teachers, she told the assembled, as she is one herself. She earned her degree in early-childhood education from Temple University, while raising two children and working two jobs after she came to the United States.
Meisel said that her best ideas come in the early hours of the morning. She had the idea for Jewish children to write thank-you letters to the Queen of Denmark in 1995 — the 50th anniversary of Denmark's liberation from the Nazis — in appreciation for the country's role in saving a portion of its Jewish population during World War II.
"I owe my life to the Danes," she said. After she and her sister had escaped the death march, they posed as Catholics as they made their way through Germany, and finally escaped into Denmark. She said that, after the horrors of the Holocaust, the Danes gave her the strength and resolve to trust people again.
After the war, she moved to Toronto, where her brother had settled, then on to the United States, and was active in the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and '60s here in Philadelphia.
She feels passionately about talking about the Holocaust: "To me, we have a responsibility to speak out about it."
She also feels strongly that students should not be taught about the Holocaust until seventh grade. Any earlier may be too traumatic for children — she didn't tell her own daughter until she turned 14.
Meisel stressed that kids today need to understand what happened in the past, so they can prevent it from happening in the future. "You don't even get it on the front page anymore," she said of genocide, pointing to the example of Darfur, Sudan.
"We're all in this world together," acknowledged participant Mary Green, a teacher at St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Philadelphia. She starts her classes with the idea of respecting one another, then moves on to larger world issues.
"Hopefully, they're taking back information that will help teach the students the horror of hatred," added Mary Ann Olsyewski, the principal of St. Boniface School in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Kate Fitzpatrick, a teacher at Holy Cross School in Springfield, Pa., said that the program "puts in perspective when you take disrespect to an extreme." The students learn to quell the smallest problems, something as simple as refusing a classmate a seat at the lunch table.
Despite her experience, Meisel does not remain bitter. When she escaped, she said a prayer to God, asking for help not to become a hateful person. "That hate stifles you from living," she insisted. "But to hate — that is not in my vocabulary."