Holocaust survivor talks to DelVal students about fighting hate

Nov 17, 2011

By Annmarie Ely

Judy Meisel, an 82-year-old woman who spoke to students at DelVal’s Multicultural Forum, can remember the smell of death in the camps during the Holocaust, but she can also remember the sound of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice when he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

When she moved to the U.S., she joined the civil rights movement and began using her story to show people the dangerous consequences of hatred.

Meisel didn’t give a speech at the Nov. 15 forum. Rather, she held an intimate conversation with a standing-room-only audience.

“She has survived what we only learn about in history books,” said DelVal student Harris Trobman, a member of Hillel, as he introduced Meisel.  “This is a unique opportunity.”

Meisel walked toward the students and told them they could ask any questions they wanted, even if the questions were uncomfortable.

“I don’t like to stand at a podium,” said Meisel. “I like to see all of your beautiful eyes.”

She said when she remembers the Holocaust she thinks of the isolation she felt in the ghetto and in the camp, remembers her mother being taken to the gas chambers, all the hangings and the deaths.

At the time, she was a child, but the memories haven’t left her even though her hair has gone white.

She said sometimes she won’t sleep well without pills, but that she doesn’t like to take them.

Meisel said the memories are “always with me.”

In the camps she would put herself in a trance to smell flowers that weren’t there.

“With the stench of death around me I could smell the flowers,” said Meisel. “…We pinched ourselves to see that we were alive. To take one breath more was to fight the Nazis.”

When people ask if she hates anyone for what happened to her and to her family, she replies, that she “hates hate.”

“Hate stifles you,” said Meisel. “The ones that go around hating, the Aryan Nation, they’re nobodies… You can’t live and go around hating.”

Meisel asked if any students had Danish heritage.

“They saved my life,” said Meisel, who escaped to Denmark at 16. “I weighed 47 pounds. They put me in a hospital and fed me…They gave me a sense that I could trust human beings that weren’t Jewish.”

When she moved to the U.S., she got involved with the civil rights movement, which gave her some memories she describes as “unbelievable.”

“We all felt an African American family is not safe…a Jewish home is not safe,” said Meisel, who stayed with a black family the night before the famous March on Washington in 1963. “To see so many people together, white people, Japanese people, Chinese people… to hear ‘I Have a Dream’ was unbelievable.”

She still remembers the little details about that day, like what she ate and that it was hot out.

“Martin Luther King, we need what he taught,” said Meisel. “…He broke the shackles of indifference…The apathy that I see bothers me.”

When asked about deniers of the Holocaust she said that they are “out to try to kill her a second time.”

She talked about various deniers, including Arthur Butz, a tenured professor at Northwestern University.

She said Elie Wiesel, the author of “Night,” a famous book about the Holocaust, told her, “When you go out to speak Judy, everyone who hears you becomes an eye witness.”

Meisel encouraged students to respect each other’s differences.

“We’re not all the same, but we’re all made of flesh and blood,” said Meisel.

A student asked her if she ever thought people would stop killing each other.

“I should hope there will be peace one day,” said Meisel. “ I hope you young people will see to it because you have choices.  You can align yourself with peace or you can align yourself with the Aryan Nation or something like that.”

She said the most important step in the right direction is doing away with indifference.

“It is important that we at DelVal get enough knowledge to enrich ourselves,” said Shakera Robinson of Students for Diversity.

The night before, she attended the showing of the film “Tak for Alt (Thank you for Everything)” about Meisel’s life.

“It was empowering for me to watch,” said Robinson.

Students appreciated the chance to hear Meisel’s story.

“It really made a lot of sense and hit home for me, ” said sophomore Sarah Cimbol.

“I thought she was very inspiring,” said sophomore Elizabeth Fleming. “It really gives you a perspective of what she went through and how it still affects us today.”

The liberal arts department, Students for Diversity and Hillel hosted the Multicultural Forum. DelVal hosts Multicultural Forums twice a year.