‘There was always hope’
Editor’s note: Luminary reader Nancy Price of Hughesville, recently came across a story written 30 years ago by-then editor Vivian Daily. Because International Holocaust Remembrance Day observed 75 years on Jan. 27, Nancy suggested that the lead story appearing in the July 6, 1989 issue be reprinted. Titled ‘Muncy Resident Knows the Meaning of Freedom,’ the message remains strong. Some stories simply need to be retold.
In 1946, after spending four years in Nazi concentration camps, the American flag, flying over Stuttgart, Germany, represented opportunity, freedom and love to Judith Gutkowska Mendelsohn. “When I saw the flagit was freedom to me,” she recalls. “Americans have no idea what it is to live in fear of having your freedom taken away.” Today, a resident of Muncy for nearly 40 years, Judy gets very angry over the burning of the flag for “it is a symbol of everything”everything that represents liberty to one who has known oppression.
In 1939, living a traditional Jewish life in Suwalki, Poland, a town of approximately 30,000 located on the borders of East Prussia and Lithuania, a young Judy prepared for her September journey to the United States. She had been accepted to Westminster College in Wilmington, Pennsylvania for the fall term. The ship on which she had booked passage, the “Batory,” was to depart September 3, but that ship was never to makes its voyage.The beginning of World War II in Europe which brought with it Russian occupation of Suwalki, postponed the trip for seven years and began a nightmare the world, even today, cannot understand or accept.
At that time, Judy’s family owned a 600-acre estate on which they raised and exported gherkin pickles. A sister, Janet, was married and already living in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Later, another sister, Ruth, her child, and attorney husband, who was being pursued by the Communists for his refusal to help them, made a daring escape from Suwalki. This was accomplished by fleeing to Lithuania on a false visa, traveling through Siberia to Japan and then finally, after two years of travel, to freedom in Canada on the last ship to leave Japan, arriving on the day the United Stated declared war on Japan.
Judy, her parents and a cousin also decided to leave Suwalki to escape the Germans who had now replaced the Russians, and were occupying their hometown. Traveling by night, separately, they crossed into Lithuania by convincing the border patrol that they had friends in the country.
While living in Lithuania Judy was married; shortly afterward, during the German occupation of the country, she and her husband were moved to a ghetto where a daughter was born to them. During the next two years while living and working in the ghetto, Judy’s husband and child were taken away at different times and assumed killedthere is no way to know for sure exactly what happened to them-she never saw them again.
In 1942, the Nazis liquidated the ghettos, including the one in which Judy was living, in order to expedite extermination, and transported the occupants by train to concentration camps. Years later, while a student at Westminster College, Judy wrote the following reflection of this move: On a beautiful day when all nature was green and everything was alive and happy, the Germans herded me and a thousand other women into a railway train, with 120 women in each cattle car, to take us to Dachau, one of the worst concentration camps. The train stopped in a wood. We got out of the freight cars. The Germans, dressed in their black Nazi uniforms, with rifles on their arms and sticks of rubber in their hands, surrounded us and led us away; where, we did not know. We were afraid, we thought they were taking us to a cremafencestory, and we wanted to live to meet our families, our dearest friends. Some of the women prayed, some wept, and some were indifferent to everything.
After three hours we came to the camp.the lean and frightened faces of the people spoke for themselves, suggested what had happened there. The barracks were surrounded by barbed wire which was electrified. Thousands of people who looked like skeletons stood near the fences, and their eyes shone as if they wanted to ask us something. From a distance we saw the crematory of which we had heard. Suddenly I heard a voice from the barracks calling my name. At first I did not recognize the voice, but later I knew it to be that of a friend of mine. We had gone to school together. Ole (a Christian prisoner of war) called “Judyta, do not go left.” A stick of rubber fell on his face. I saw blood.
The Nazi murderers took us to a barrack and sorted us, as one might geese or chickens. They divided us, placing some on the left side, some on the right. I remembered my friend’s voice, “Do not go left.” I had luck; I slipped through on the right side and won my life. After the sorting, we 200 women went to a bathroom. The way was full of skeletons of people. I saw a little girl of about six years sitting beside her dead mother. She was crying, kissing her mother, and saying: “Mama, I am little; I do not know what to do. The Germans will kill me. I want to live.”
We were tired and hungry. We had not slept for three days, but we had to stand all night, and we had to hear the voices of the women sent to the crematory, the voices of our friends, and nature wept together with us.
During her years in the concentration camp, Judy was made to build trenches for German tanks, made to clean German property, including houses of prostitution, and other degrading jobs. Judy comments that more than taking everything from her, the Nazis made her feel “less than nothing.” She ironically noted, “I was the luckiest person, I never got lice. Many people in the camps were eaten by lice.”
Judy remained in the working camp until 1944 when the Russians began their invasion of Germany and liberation of the prisoners. The camp was evacuated and thousands of imprisoned Jews and prisoners of war, including Americans, were marched across Poland. Fearing this to be a death march, Judy and her cousin escaped and hid at a Polish farm until a Russian Jewish officer came to free her.
Looking back, Judy tells of wearing nothing but a blanket and a pair of men’s shoes and suffering from typhoid fever (which she had to hide from the Nazis for fear of being killed), when finally liberated. Being determined to go home, she and her cousin set off for the three and a half month trip over hundreds of miles to Suwalki. Arriving on Good Friday in1945 at the home of her former housekeeper, who did not recognize her, she began several months of recovery. She was to discover that her parents had been killed in the Warsaw uprising and that their beautiful home destroyed by the Russian and German armies which had used the property during the war.
During this time reports of survivors were broadcast over radio from Warsaw, and one such report of Judy’s survival was heard by a relative living in Israel. He, in turn, notifed her sister in Pennsylvania who sent supplies to Judy through the Israeli cousin since food and clothing were very scarce. Judy remembers trying to contact her sister and not being able to recall her address, sending a letter simply addressed with her sister’s name, “New Castle, USA.” and having it eventually delivered to her sister.
Deciding she could no longer tolerate the military-occupied town, which had been ravaged by war and where more than 15,000 of the residents had been murdered, she, with another cousin who had survived in the underground, traveled on to Stuttgart. Judy recalls seeing the flag flying over Stuttgart, noting, “It was freedom to me.” She remembers with eyes shining in excitement, meeting with General Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to greet the DPs (Displaced Persons), and shaking hands with General Eisenhower, a moment she will never forget. As a Christmas present to the DPs in 1945, President Harry Truman presented them with visas, after which Judy anxiously booked passage to America on the first boat from Bremen Hafen to New York, arriving May 22, 1946.
My first sight of America was at eight o’clock on a cool cloudy Monday morning. Sea gulls were flying above the boat. All night we had been anchored at quarantine, but now the boat began to move.Through the fog we could see the Statue of Liberty. I shouted with joy. My eyes were full of tears of happiness. In 50 minutes we knew our boat would dock in the port of New York. From a distance I could see the well-known skyscrapers about which there was much talk in Europe. The boat sailed faster and faster until at last it reached the dock. Throngs of people were waiting for us, for it was the first boat to come from Germany to America after the war. After a ten-day voyage, I stood on the soil of America, the free country about which I had heard so much.
Judy moved to New Castle and lived with her sister before beginning courses at the college which had accepted her seven years earlier, later tranferring to Pittsburgh University, from which she graduated in 1950. The already well-educated woman taught German and Hebrew while attending college. After a seven-year interruption, Judy courageously begn to put her life back together.
In August of 1949, she met Muncy merchant Paul Mendelsohn, owner of Paul’s Department Store [now Orlando’s on Main Street] , while vacationing in Florida and they married in January 1950. Judy has enjoyed her new home of Muncy, and especially loves the people. She and Paul now split their time between Hollywood, Florida and here. Their daughter, Shirley, son-in-law and two grandsons make their home in Pittsburgh.
When asked how she kept going on during the horror of those years in the concentration camp, Judy simply states, “There was always hopehope that I would find my family somewhere, hope that the Americans were comingI just could never believe that a human could treat another human in that way.”
I had dreamed about the United States in the worse moments of my life. I thought I was dreaming. I had come from a country on whose soil the war was fought, where I had never enough to eat nor enough to wear. I had lived all the years of war in expectation of death. Here I am free. I now have the right to live, to work, to be a normal human being!