Meisel, Judith (Becker)
Kovno (Lithuania), Konigsberg (Germany), Stuffhof
Mrs. Judith Meisel was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1929. When the war began in Lithuania on June of 1941, Mrs. Meisel was a twelve year old, blue-eyed blond girl. Her mother, a widow, discovered that her sister was killed even before the Nazis came in.
The Polish Jews were sent to the courtyard. Most said that “an educated country like Germany wouldn’t burn Jews.” Children were throwing stones at the Jews and calling them names. They were assigned a small place in the Kovno Ghetto with three other families. The food was scarce and people kept disappearing. They had to continuously assemble in a field.
At the age of fourteen, Mrs. Meisel got a work card, making boots for the German Army. She was responsible for putting the heels on the boots. For this, she received one piece of bread. She was shocked to see the dead bodies lining the streets in the ghetto and wondered if she’s be next.
Mrs. Meisel and her family (mother, brother, sister) were next taken to Konigsberg, Germany in trucks. She first saw the shiny German boots and their ferocious dogs. Then by train they were taken to the Stutthof Concentration Camp. Her brother was taken off the train and taken to Dachau.
The Gestapo tore out her long blond curls and cut off the remainder of her hair. She was given a dress and clogs but no underwear. Her mother’s gold teeth were yanked out. There was one water faucet open for one hour a day for about fifteen hundred people. She was the only child in the barrack. She and her mother were sent to the gas chamber and told to undress. A German soldier pushed her away and said to take a corpse’s dress and go to her barrack. Her mother was gassed in the gas chamber.
Mrs. Meisel’s sister was in the hospital with typhus, but could only stay there for four days before being killed. She went to the hospital and took her out. A week later Stuthoff was liquidated at the end of December. Under German guard, together the sisters walked through the terrible blizzard. When her sister could no longer walk, Mrs. Meisel dragged her along. All the while, bombs were dropping around them. Everyone started to run. The fields were white with snow, she was walking barefoot and they kept sinking in. She knocked on farmhouse door for food. The woman gave them food, different clothes and kept them overnight.
The next day the two sisters were taken by the woman’s Russian husband to a location where they could cross the frozen Danzig River. They crawled over the ice to get to a convent on the other side of the river. The nuns were wonderful. In order to day at the convent, the nuns told the sisters that they had to be baptized. They refused, saying they were the last two Jews alive and had to live to tell their story. They left in the middle of the night carrying rosaries with them.
While Mrs. Meisel had typhus, her sister left her at a hospital and went to find work. Eventually her sister returned to get her, taking her to a farm. On Sunday, the farmers took them to church where soldiers asked who they were. They responded that they were Catholic Lithuanians.
In April of 1945, both sisters sailed for Denmark, but the boat sank. Mrs. Meisel didn’t swim but held on until she was rescued. On May 5, 1945, the war was over but they were afraid to say they were Jewish. A Red Cross worker hugged and kissed them. Mrs. Meisel was sixteen but only weighed forty-seven pounds, had sores on her head and had no idea how to eat with utensils.
They were the first Jews to arrive in Copenhagen, Denmark. She asked for water, potatoes and herring. She was asked if she hated the Germans and she replied “You cannot live with hate.” Mrs. Meisel spent two years in a hospital nursing her back to health. Seven thousand people came back from Sweden. The chief rabbi made a blessing and that gave her back her Judaism. Mrs. Meisel says that she owes her life to the Danes.
Until 1962, whenever she was asked to speak, she could not. But when the first African American family moved into her neighborhood in Philadelphia, she made cookies for them. Crowds were screaming obscenities and the police did nothing. The couple, Sarah and Horace Baker became her dear friends. Mrs. Meisel joined a multi-racial group, Panel of American Women, to speak and at times she wasn’t served because of her association with African Americans.
It was around this time, during the civil rights movement, that Mrs. Meisel began to speak about her experiences in the Holocaust.
Date: October 17, 1998
Interviewer: Rene Lichtman