Judith Meisel was 16 years old and weighed only 47 pounds when she was brought to Denmark in 1945.
World War II was ending and her time spent in the Stutthof concentration camp was mercifully over. Only she, her sister and brother remained in the family. Meisel lost 147 family members during the Holocaust.
She made a promise back then – to tell the stories of those lost at the hands of evil men. She shared that story – as she’s been doing for decades – with Portage Area High School students on Friday morning, keeping a captive audience with vivid memories of 1940s Eastern Europe and the horrific Nazi regime.
“All of us thought that none of us would survive and nobody’s going to know about us,” she said. “And we promised each other that we have that responsibility to talk about that.”
Meisel said many Holocaust survivors have great difficulty speaking about their experiences. Scars still persist on the minds, bodies and hearts of those Jewish survivors.
“I still suffer from the beatings today,” the 84-year-old said.
Meisel fielded questions from her teenage audience after speaking. Some, like senior Zachary Nolan, have met with her before.
“Each time, she says a little bit more,” he said. “Last time, we learned about the aftermath. This time, we learned more about how bad it actually was during the Holocaust and how cruel the Nazis were.”
Portage students start learning about the Holocaust in their sophomore year, according to Nolan. As they progress, the focus turns from the Rwandan genocide to the Congo – all mass killings.
“It’s not so much about the Holocaust,” Meisel said. “It hasn’t stopped. There was Rwanda, Cambodia. ... Do you think we gained anything in Afghanistan? Do you think we gained anything in Iraq?”
Meisel said the cycle of violence needs to be broken. Otherwise, a generation woefully incapable of tolerance and empathy is coming of age on the Earth.
“We hate the ones our parents hate,” she said, implying that hate is taught and not uniquely innate to humans. “We don’t have to love each other, but we have to respect one another as human beings.
“And not one human being is better than the other one,” she said. “We are all made of flesh and blood and we’ll all go down below, someday.”
Even though it was Nolan’s second time listening to Meisel recount her trials, he said he’s still picking up new things.
“The thing we learn is no one really helps out. ... There wasn’t any help until the end, basically,” he said. “And the world just turned the other way and didn’t pay attention to it.”
Meisel described her freedom as an “unbelievable” sensation and wants to continue her story.
“As long as I can,” she said. “(The violence) has to stop.”
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