Times Past

Dan Krieger: How Judy Meisel’s human spirit survived

‘Martin Luther King helped black Americans, but he did more still for white people: He helped them break the shackles of hatred.”

Judy Meisel is a feisty, warmhearted defender of human rights.

Approaching her 82nd birthday, she can recount in detail her early years: Her happy family life — despite the rampant anti-Semitism in the village of Jasvene, Lithuania — was destroyed on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

At least 146 members of her family were killed during the Holocaust. At age 12, Judy was forced to go to the Kovna ghetto established by Nazi Germany to hold the Lithuanian Jews of Kaunas during the Holocaust.

At 15, she was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp. She stood outside the gas chamber while her mother was executed.

Typhus and starvation killed those who weren’t gassed. Judy’s weight dropped to 48 pounds.

As the Red Army approached from the east, the surviving inmates of the camp were placed on a death march into Germany.

Judy and her sister, Rachel, escaped and found their way to what is now the Polish city of Gdansk — called Danzig by the Germans. Pretending to be Christians, they joined a boatload of Germans sailing to Copenhagen to escape the Red Army.

When they arrived in Denmark, they were amazed to hear that many Danes had risked their lives by helping Jews escape to neutral Sweden.

Seeking refuge in a high school gymnasium, Judy and Rachel were “adopted” by Poula and Sven Jensen, who nursed them back to health.

Judy married a Canadian and eventually moved to Philadelphia. Chestnut Hill, her neighborhood, housed many of the city’s civil servants.

Judy became acquainted with pioneering lawyer, judge and civil rights leader Raymond Pace Alexander.

Alexander was the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1923. His wife, Sadie Tanner Mossell, was the first black woman to earn a law degree from Penn.

Judy met Alexander as he was walking his dog. He invited her to dinner with a young minister from the south.

Dr. Martin Luther King had come up from Montgomery, Ala. He noticed that Judy was about to eat some vegetables prepared with pork chitlings.

He said, “I know that your dietary laws prohibit pork.” Hostess Sadie Alexander quickly had her cook prepare some vegetables without pork.

Judy asked King, “Do you think that there will ever be black ward leaders in Philadelphia?”

The ward leaders were the people who really ran the city.

King responded “Not in my lifetime, but I can see it happening someday.”

Seven years later, Judy participated in the March on Washington and heard King give his “I Have a Dream” speech.

You can hear Judy and see the film about her early life, “Tak for Alt: Survival of a Human Spirit,” on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Cal Poly’s Graphic Arts Building 26, sponsored by the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Admission is free.

I told Judy about a uniquely San Luis Obispo event, the annual Martin Luther King Scholarship Barbecue held at the Elk’s Club, 222 Elks Lane in San Luis Obispo from 12 to 3 p.m. on Feb. 6, Super Bowl Sunday.

You can help keep the vision alive by participating in this delicious and rewarding event.

For only $10, you’ll get a wonderful Southern chicken barbecue dinner and help keep King’s dream alive by supporting graduating seniors from San Luis Obispo’s high schools to go on to college.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.