Minnesota woman is last who can tell of Nazi concentration camp horrors
MINNEAPOLIS — The Nazi hunters from Germany were midway through a four-hour interview with Judith Meisel when they pulled out a photo of a young SS guard the 88-year-old Holocaust survivor hadn't seen for nearly 75 years.
"Meydele! That is Meydele!" Meisel said, repeating the Yiddish term for "young girl" that she and other prisoners at the Stutthof concentration camp secretly used to describe the guard's girlish facial features. Now in his 90s, the man still lives freely in Germany.
In a desperate, final dash to bring the guard and others to account for Nazi atrocities committed decades ago, investigators from Germany's Federal Justice Office, aided by FBI agents, visited Meisel's St. Louis Park, Minn., home last month after once thinking that there were no more living survivors of Stutthof. Found by German authorities after an internet search, Meisel offers a rare chance for prosecutors to present one more survivor's account of a brutal camp in Poland where 60,000 died.
"I think it's important to send the message that no matter how long ago these crimes were committed that humanity will seek justice until it can no longer do so," said Gregory Gordon, a former federal prosecutor who worked on cases involving Nazi war criminals.
For decades, perpetrators like the guard Meisel pointed out — unnamed because he doesn't know he is being investigated — evaded charges because German authorities only tracked those they could link to killings. That changed with a new legal precedent set with the 2011 conviction of a guard from a death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, who became the first to be charged there as an accessory to some 28,000 killings.
The sense of urgency to the cause has also added life to Meisel's story, which is still capable of surprising even her family — like her instant recognition of a guard who leered at her and other female prisoners each day as they undressed, before beating them.
"Nobody stopped them," Meisel said in a recent interview. "They didn't feel as if we were any kind of humans."
Last month, the Germans focused on Meisel's memory of life inside Stutthof alongside her mother and older sister. It meant revisiting painful memories: a guard tearing out her hair to put on a child's doll, the sight of her mother entering the gas chamber, and the agony of her fingernails pried off by the camp commandant who kept his lush greenhouse in view of the doomed.
Weeks earlier, the Germans shared a list of questions to help Meisel prepare. But her son, Michael Cohen, a Minneapolis attorney, said they needn't worry.
"I just want you to know that my mother has a lot to share," he told them.
Etched in her memory, the date Meisel's mother died is also committed to one of the many logs the Nazis kept at Stutthof: Nov. 21, 1944.
"They were not trying to hide this," Cohen said. "This was something that they were very proud of."
Meisel also stepped one foot in the gas chamber that day but, after a drunk guard yelled at her, she tore off for one of many escapes that she still struggles to explain.
"I think all the time, 'How did I survive?'" Meisel said.
After the Nazis reached her home country of Lithuania in 1941, Meisel's family was soon segregated in one of the nation's first Jewish ghettos. Her father had died years earlier from a heart attack. Two months before Soviets liberated the ghetto, Meisel's brother was sent to Dachau and the rest of the family was hauled to Stutthof, near what is now the city of Gdansk.
The German investigators who visited Minnesota wanted to hear of those months inside the secluded camp, the killings Meisel witnessed and the actions of the guards.
She may have seen more than most. Meisel said she sometimes sneaked around the camp, and at one point, saw doctors inject prisoners with a solution before their lifeless bodies were dumped outside. That spurred her to pull her typhus-riddled older sister, Rachel, from bed to flee with her as the Nazis began their infamous "death marches" in the brutal winter of 1945.
Meisel weighed just 47 pounds when, at 16, she and Rachel were liberated in Denmark the following spring. To get there, they escaped the death march during a bombing raid, hid their Jewish faith while working for an abusive German family and survived the torpedoing of a boat they were on. Years later, they reunited with their brother, Abe, in Canada.
It was nearly 50 years before Meisel returned to Stutthof with her son and his son, Aaron. She closed her eyes and squeezed a handful of barbed wire fence. She put both feet inside the gas chamber.
"I walked in there and I started talking to God," Meisel said. "'God, how could you allow this to happen?'"
Last fall, a German judicial agency identified more Nazis who worked at Stutthof.
The guard Meisel recognized was just 17 when he served the SS, and any case against him may be tried in juvenile court in Germany. Under German law, Meisel can join the case as a co-plaintiff and testify.
Before meeting the investigators, Meisel sketched maps of the camp from memory. She told relatives that she could barely sleep before the visit. Another grandson, Ben Cohen, flew from New York for the interview and is now preserving her story on a new website. Sitting near his father as the two listened to Meisel again describe her mother's death stirred a new appreciation for how fresh that loss still is for the family.
"She would have been that next generation sitting on the couch with us," Ben Cohen said.
Meisel's two encounters with Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a career in civil rights activism, and she has visited more than 320 high school and college campuses. She will soon deliver her first talk at a nursing home.
But reliving her story takes a toll.
Shortly before she left Stutthof with her sister, Meisel said, a letter was tossed to her feet from the men's side of the camp. On it was a message scrawled in Yiddish: " ... hold on, the war is going to be over."
A starving Meisel then shoved the note in her mouth, choking it down, but she was caught by a commandant who tore off her fingernails with pliers as punishment.
In all the years since, she has polished her nails only once.
"I could never put anything on because it reminded me of the blood on my fingers," Meisel said, her voice breaking. "I never wanted to talk about it to anybody because it's so gruesome. I don't want to teach them a gruesome thing. I want to teach them how to make a better thing of life."
It could be months before the Germans decide whether to bring charges against the guard. But in some ways, their visit to Meisel's living room has become its own milestone.
"Any opportunity that she has to tell her story ... that's what this is all about," Michael Cohen said. "We're not looking for revenge."
Meisel keeps a framed photo of her parents, taken before the war, on a bookshelf by her front door. She also adopted her mother's affinity for baking traditional Jewish meringue cookies and challah.
Had they been willing to convert to Catholicism, Meisel and her sister could have stayed at the convent they reached after crawling across the frozen Vistula River in the dark to escape the Nazis. But, thinking they were the only two Jews left alive, Meisel said the girls vowed to keep their faith.
"I wanted to be Jewish more than anything else to show Hitler that he didn't kill all of us," Meisel said.
Story by Stephen Montemayor / Star Tribune (Minneapolis)