Judy Meisel spoke to the students of Bala Cynwyd Middle School via Skype from a corporate conference room in Minnesota about her experiences surviving the Holocaust.
It wasn’t the event the school had planned for Yom Hashoah, but perhaps there was a lesson in that: Things have a way of going sideways, for better and worse, no matter how carefully you chart your course.
Certainly that was true for Judy Meisel, whose life — which the students were learning about — was derailed by sudden death, war, politics and cruelty, and then saved by the proverbial kindness of strangers.
Meisel spoke to the students of Bala Cynwyd Middle School via Skype from a corporate conference room in Minnesota, where she lives. She had planned to meet them in person, and answer the many questions they had after they watched Tak for Alt, the documentary about her Holocaust experience. But at the last minute, her doctor said she shouldn’t fly, although she is in relatively good health for 86.
Born in Lithuania, Meisel was one of three children in a middle-class family that fell on challenging times after her merchant father’s death when she was a young girl.
She and her siblings and her mother were forced to move to the city of Kovno from her hometown of Jasvene, which Meisel has likened to the village of Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof.
It was a melancholy departure: Their village life had been filled with family and warmth, with her father often bringing home strangers for Shabbat dinner.
There were more than 140 members of her extended family living in the town together; most did not survive the war.
In one of the many accounts Meisel has given of her experience, she told of the way things changed in the town of Kovno after the Russians invaded, followed by the Germans. They were no longer allowed to go to synagogue or light the candles openly.
“A man came and said they’re burning Jews in Poland, and everyone said he’s crazy, he’s senile. Nobody wanted to believe it. The Germans, an educated people, would burn Jews like that?”
The man’s words soon became reality when the Nazis came to the courtyard where Meisel lived and pulled her mother out “by her beautiful black hair.” Her own hair was pulled off her head — along with pieces of her scalp — when they arrived at a concentration camp. The female Nazi soldier who tore Meisel’s hair out said she was going to use it for her own daughter’s doll.
Such painful details make a big impact on Meisel’s audiences, which is one reason she has been a sought-after speaker.
In addition to this recent virtual appearance at Bala Cynwyd — which fell on the anniversary of her liberation — she’s spoken to groups at colleges and high schools around the area, as well as many Catholic schools and dozens of synagogues.
But this was the first time she ever connected with a student audience via Skype. About 50 students crowded into teacher Kevin DiSantis’ room for the standing-room-only talk with Meisel, who marveled at the technology.
“I am right now in Minnesota, and you can see me in Philadelphia,” she said in accented English. “What an incredible wonderful time, this century. You have to learn as much as you can. Ask me questions even if it would be an uncomfortable question. You are my future. I’m 86 years old, and I’m here through Skype and I can see your beautiful faces.”
Meisel’s longtime friend, Margie Gleit, served as the interface for the students, reading from a list of questions they had prepared. Meisel’s son, Michael, helped translate when she couldn’t quite hear what Gleit was saying.
The first question she got was, “What does today mean to you?”
“To me, it means the most important thing: that I’m here today with you,” she told the students, describing her liberation in Denmark on May 5, 1945, and how a Red Cross worker cried and hugged her. “At that time, I weighed 47 pounds, and I was 15 years old. My mother had died in the gas chamber. I could hardly stand on my feet. [The Red Cross worker] told me, ‘You’re free now.’”
Later she added, “Today is special to me. Today, I came out of death into life.”
Students asked questions that focused on relationships: “Did you make any friends at the concentration camp?” “What happened to your father?” “How did you find your brother?” “Do you think you would have survived without your sister?”
When the questions got more philosophical, Meisel answered at length and in an impassioned tone.
In response “What was the hardest part of your journey?,” she said, “They took away my youth. I never knew what it was to be a teenager or to have food or a place to lie down. They took everything away, everything that a human being should have. I cannot tell you just one thing. It was just so horrible. Always hungry, always thirsty, and the beatings — to this day I have problems with my leg.
“My leg was completely broken just for the sake of their hatred for Jews. I feel that our world is broken, and we have to fix it again. That’s why I like to speak to young people because it’s so important that we respect each other as human beings.”
She seemed determined to impart moral lessons to the students rather than just recite the facts and inspire children to see how other people’s struggles impact them.
A longtime resident of Mount Airy in Philadelphia — a neighborhood known for its diversity and activism — Meisel was active during the civil rights movement.
She was spurred to get involved in 1963, when an African-American family moved into an all-white neighborhood in Delaware County and were harassed and bullied. People spray-painted epithets on their home, threw things at them and stood outside calling them names.
When Meisel saw this on the TV news, she was appalled. So she baked the black family some cookies, took them to their house and sat with them and told them she welcomed them to the area and wanted to support them. She also told them she was a Holocaust survivor.
“I felt that if their homes were unsafe, my home was unsafe,” she said.
To emphasize the need to care for one another in similar fashion, Meisel ended the Skype talk with the famous quote from German pastor Martin Niemoller:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The students were quiet as they filed out after Meisel said goodbye, ready for their next class. One of them said to a friend, “I almost cried” — high praise from a middle-schooler.
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