I think all the time, 'How did I survive?' —Judy
1929 — 1940
Before the War
- February 7, 1929: Judy Beker is born in Lithuania in a small town known as Josvainiai. She is the youngest of three children.
- Judy’s father, Osser, works as a lumber merchant. Osser dies suddenly while on a business trip when Judy is 8 years old.
- Judy’s mother, Mina, moves Judy and her siblings (sister, Rachel, and brother, Abe) to the city of Kovno (Kaunus) in 1938. Mina begins working as a seamstress to support the family.
- In 1940 Soviet Russia occupies Lithuania. Mina warns her children to carefully conceal their Jewish identities in public. Rumors that “they are burning the Jews in Poland” circulate in the community.
1941 — 1944
The Kovno Ghetto
- Anti-Semitism grows to a fever pitch as Germany is invading neighboring countries.
- In 1941 Germany invades Lithuania. Killing squads known as the Einsatzgruppen, comprised primarily of SS officers flanking the German army, are responsible for the murder of an estimated 1.5 and 2 million Eastern European Jews. More than 140 members of Judy’s family are killed by the Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian collaborators.
- Kovno is one of the first Lithuanian cities to be occupied by the Nazis and a ghetto segregating Jews is established there in August 1941. About 35,000 Jews are confined to the ghetto located in a suburb of Kovno called Slabodka. Judy and her family are forced to live in the ghetto with three other families in a single apartment. The ghetto is enclosed by a fence that prevents Jews from leaving. Within the first three months of its existence, 12,000 Jews are killed in the Kovno ghetto. Many others die from starvation.
- Because of her blonde hair and blue eyes, Judy is selected and trained to sneak out of the ghetto to bring back bread and supplies. The missions are dangerous and she is at constant risk of being caught.
- While in the ghetto Judy is forced to work in a factory making rubber boots for the German army.
- The Nazis begin transporting Jews from the ghetto to concentration camps to either be killed in gas chambers or forced into slave labor and tortured. When Kovno is liberated by Soviet forces on August 1, 1944 only a few hundred Jews remained.
Auschwitz & Stutthof Concentration Camps
- In June 1944 Judy, Rachel, Abe and their mother Mina are transported by truck from the Kovno ghetto to a train station. Her brother Abe is put on a train to Dachau concentration camp. Judy, her sister Rachel, and their mother Mina are packed into a train destined for Auschwitz.
- Many prisoners are sent directly to gas chambers in Auschwitz. Judy, her sister and their mother are selected for transfer to Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, 22 miles east of Gdansk.
- Upon arrival at Stutthof, Judy’s hair is torn out by hand by SS guards. She is assigned to the womens barracks, and each day is forced to stand long hours for Appell (German for "roll call"). The Appell could last for as long as half a day and be called at any time, day or night. Judy is beaten and tortured by the SS guards and forced to work in the assembly line of a heavy metal factory operated on the Stutthof premises.
- On November 21, 1944, her mother Mina is killed in the gas chamber at Stutthof. Judy is in line with her mother and ready to enter the gas chamber when a guard orders her to run back to the barrack. This is the last time she sees her mother.
- As the Russian army advances closer to Stutthof, the Germans begin evacuating the area and send the prisoners of Stutthof on a "death march." On January 25, 1945, Judy, her sister, and around 1,000 other women prisoners from Stutthof are forced to march in the freezing cold headed for the umschlagplatz (a place where prisoners are killed or put on transports to other camps) in Nickelswaide, about 8 miles away.
- Allied forces begin bombing, and amidst the chaos Judy and Rachel manage to take cover in a ditch. After the bombing stops, and the march continues, the girls wait until it is safe to run away. They find a coal bin by a house and fall asleep inside. They are awakened by a Russian POW who is working on a farm owned by an SS official. He takes them inside the house, feeds them, and they take a bath for the first time in years. He tells them they are not safe and if they were found they will be taken immediately to the umschlagplatz. He finds them new clothes and tells them to pretend they are Lithuanian Catholics named Uta and Anna. Following a path in the snow made by the Russian POW on horseback, the girls cross the frozen Vistula river where they find refuge in a convent with a cloister of nuns.
- Rachel is sick with typhus and in her delirium speaks Yiddish and they are discovered as Jews. The nuns take great care of Rachel and she regains her health. The nuns insist that they pray every day with them in the chapel. At night the nuns lock their door to keep them from leaving. Believing they are the only two Jews left alive, Judy and Rachel decide to leave the convent. By then Judy is very ill, so Rachel takes her to a hospital in Gdansk and leaves her there to get treatment.
- A few days later, Rachel returns to Judy in the hospital accompanied by a German woman. The woman’s husband is an SS officer but the family agrees to give the girls housing and food if they will work as their servants. Judy and Rachel pretend to be Anna and Uta, Lithuanian Catholics.
- Judy and Rachel work for this German family at a Wehrmacht station supporting German troops, keeping their fake identities. They are forced to live in the barn and eat like animals from the floor.
- As Allied forces begin liberating areas of Poland, Germans begin to evacuate and head for other German occupied territories. The German family arranges for Judy and Rachel to travel with them by boat to Denmark.
- Their boat to Denmark is struck by a torpedo and the sisters survive by clinging to debris until rescued by another fishing boat. They are brought to Denmark and given shelter in a refugee center.
- Judy and Rachel maintain false identities while living in the German displaced persons camp in Denmark when the country is liberated from Nazi rule on May 5, 1945. They come forward to the Red Cross as Jewish survivors. Stunned that two Jews are hiding in the refugee center, the Red Cross ask the girls to sign their name in Hebrew to prove their Jewish identity to the nurses.
- The girls initially remain in Denmark where they regain their health and are taken in by a Danish couple, Paula and Svend Jensen.
- Judy and Rachel meet another survivor from Stutthof and the woman tells them that she has learned her own husband survived Dachau and is now living in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Judy and Rachel send a poster with their photos and contact information to the camp in Italy. Their brother Abe sees the poster and sends them a postcard telling them he was trying to get to Israel but could not because of the British blockade. He ends up in Toronto, Canada and asks them to join him there.
- Judy decides to leave Denmark and travels to Canada to be reunited with her brother. Rachel marries a Dane, Yosfa Levitin, has a son Oscar, and then also moves with them to Toronto.
- In 1949 Judy meets her first husband, Gabe Cohen, on the boat to Canada. He is returning from Israel where he had been fighting in the War Of Independence. They marry and have three children, Mina, Michael and Debby.
- While living in Philadelphia, Judy begins to become involved in various Civil Rights actions.
- In 1963, days after attending Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, Judy sees on the news that a black family trying to move into a white neighborhood in Folcroft, PA is facing violent riots and protests at their new home. More than 1,500 people have gathered, throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at the Baker family.
- Judy bakes her favorite merengue cookies and drives to the Baker house to deliver the care package and show her support.
- Judy begins speaking and teaching about her experiences as a way to inspire thousands to stand up to hatred, bigotry and prejudice.
When I saw a mob of people hunting a family that moved into a neighborhood that was all white, written on the house, 'N- go home,' that to me was repeating the Holocaust all over. —Judy