Judy Meisel has witnessed the effects of hatred firsthand.
As a Holocaust survivor, she endured physical hardship and psychological torture at the hands of the Nazis. Later, as a civil rights activist, she campaigned against racism and discrimination.
The Santa Barbara woman will speak about her experiences Wednesday at Cuesta College as part of the No Place for Hate campaign organized by the Anti-Defamation League.
The event will also feature the unveiling of No Place for Hate banners at both Cuesta campuses and a screening of the documentary “Tak for Alt: Survival of a Human Spirit,” which follows Meisel’s journey. (The title means “Thanks for Everything” in Danish.)
“You’ll always know about the Holocaust because you’ll read books about the Holocaust and you’ll see movies about the Holocaust, but that’s not the same as hearing about it from someone who’s been there,” said Meisel, 81.
“I want to do as much as I can to see that this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Born in Lithuania, Meisel remembers when Soviet Union forces invaded her homeland in 1940, just a year after her father’s death. The following year, Nazi Germany took control of the country.
Forced to live in a ghetto ringed with barbed wire, the 12-year-old Meisel and her family worked as slave laborers before being sent to the Stutthof concentration camp in northern Poland.
“They took children out of their mothers’ arms and threw them into the gas chambers,” said Meisel, whose mother was among those killed. Meisel narrowly avoided the same fate.
“This was not for fighting a war. This was because we were Jewish.”
At the end of World War II, the 16-year-old girl weighed just 47 pounds.
“I owe my life to the Danish people,” Meisel said. “They nursed me back to health. They gave me my humanity back.”
Seeking a new life in the New World, Meisel reunited with her siblings in Canada before moving to the United States. But her euphoria soon faded when she realized that the same problems that had plagued her homeland existed in America, too.
When a black family moved into an all-white neighborhood in Philadelphia in 1963, she recalled, “A mob of people turned out, taunting them and calling them names It was horrible.”
“I felt that if African-Americans can’t live where they want to, then I can’t live anywhere as a Jewish woman,” Meisel said. “I felt my Jewish home was not safe.”
So she helped organize a panel of Philadelphian women of different racial and religious backgrounds to speak out.
Meisel has been making a public stand against hatred, intolerance and injustice ever since.
Thanks to the civil rights movement, “It’s illegal to discriminate,” she said. “But to say that the hatred or the dissonance or the racism went away No, it didn’t. It just got shoved under the rug.”
Meanwhile, she said, hate-fueled conflicts continue unabated.
“We thought after the Holocaust, ‘Nobody’s going to do anything out of hatred to annihilate a people.’ What’s happening right now is horrible,” she said, citing the war raging in Somalia as one example.
“We are so insulated from all that. We take life so for granted,” Meisel said. “When I go to speak to schools, I want to make (the students) sensitized that the whole world doesn’t live like that.”
The only way to combat apathy, she said, is to make sure that the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten.
Cuesta College’s No Place for Hate event begins at noon Wednesday in Building 5400 on the main campus off Highway 1 northwest of San Luis Obispo. The event is free.