I think all the time, 'How did I survive?' —Judy
1929 — 1940
Before the War
- February 7, 1929: Judy Beker was born in Lithuania in a small town known as Josvainiai, the youngest of three children.
- Judy’s father, Osser, worked as a lumber merchant. Osser died suddenly while on a business trip when Judy was 8 years old.
- Judy’s mother, Mina, moved Judy and her siblings (sister, Rachel, and brother, Abe) to the city of Kovno (Kaunus) in 1938. Mina began working as a seamstress to support the family.
- In Fall 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II.
- In 1940 Soviet Russia occupied Lithuania. Mina warned her children to carefully conceal their Jewish identities as it became increasingly dangerous to practice their traditions in public. The Nazis set up concentration camps and ghettos in occupied Poland, and the first transport of Polish political prisoners arrived at Auschwitz in June. Judy heard rumors that “they are burning the Jews in Poland” circulated in the community.
They are burning the Jews.
1941 — 1944
The Kovno Ghetto
- Anti-Semitism grew to a fever pitch as Germany invaded neighboring countries.
- In 1941 Germany invaded Lithuania. More than 140 members of Judy’s family in Josvainiai were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. According to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, "the Einsatzgruppen organized and helped to carry out the shooting of more than half a million people, the vast majority of them Jews, in the first nine months of the war."
- Kovno was one of the first Lithuanian cities to be occupied by the Nazis and they established a ghetto segregating Jews in August 1941. About 35,000 Jews were confined to the ghetto located in a suburb of Kovno called Slabodka. Judy and her family were forced to live in the ghetto with three other families in a single apartment. The ghetto was enclosed by a fence that prevented Jews from leaving. Within the first three months of its existence, 12,000 Jews were killed in the Kovno ghetto. Many others died from starvation.
- Because of her blonde hair and blue eyes, Judy was selected and trained to sneak out of the ghetto to bring back bread and supplies. Her brother Abe also took part in these dangerous missions. They were at constant risk of being caught and punishment would have likely been death.
- While in the ghetto, the Jews were forced to work as slave labor in a factory making rubber boots for the German army.
- The Nazis began transporting Jews from the ghetto to concentration camps, either to be killed in gas chambers or forced into more slave labor and tortured. When Kovno was liberated by Soviet forces on August 1, 1944 only a few hundred Jews remained there.
Stutthof Concentration Camp
- In 1944 Judy, Rachel, Abe and their mother Mina were deported from the Kovno ghetto. They were packed into a train destined for a German Nazi concentration camp called Stutthof, located 22 miles east of Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdańsk). The women were helpless as Abe was transferred to a train and sent to Dachau concentration camp. Judy, her sister Rachel, and their mother Mina had no idea where they sent him.
- Upon arrival at Stutthof, SS guards tore Judy’s hair out by hand. Judy, Rachel and Mina were assigned to the women's barracks, and each day they were 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 was 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.
- In late 1944, Judy's mother Mina was murdered in the gas chamber at Stutthof. Judy was in line with Mina to enter the gas chamber when a guard ordered her to run back to the barrack and so she did. She found Rachel and told her they don't have a mother anymore.
- As the Russian army advanced closer to Stutthof, the Germans began evacuating the area and sent the prisoners of Stutthof on a "death march." In January 1945, Judy, her sister, and around 1,000 other female prisoners from Stutthof were forced to march in the freezing cold headed for the umschlagplatz (a place where prisoners were killed or put on transports to other camps) in Nickelswaide, about 8 miles away.
- Allied forces began bombing nearby and amidst the chaos Judy and Rachel managed to take cover in a ditch. After the bombing stopped, and the march continued, the girls waited until it was safe to run away. They found a coal bin near a house and fell asleep inside. They were awakened by a Russian POW who was working on the farm owned by an SS official. He took them inside the house, fed them, and they took a bath for the first time in years. He told them they were not safe there and if they were found they would be taken immediately to the umschlagplatz. He found them new clothes and told them to pretend they were Lithuanian Catholics named Uta and Anna. Following a path in the snow made by the Russian POW on horseback, the girls crossed the frozen Vistula river where they found refuge in a convent with a cloister of nuns.
- Rachel was sick with typhus and in her delirium spoke her native Yiddish aloud, revealing to the nuns that they were Jews. The nuns took great care of Rachel until she regained her health. The nuns insisted that the girls pray every day with them in the chapel and at night locked the girls' door to keep them from leaving. The nuns wanted Judy and Rachel to convert. Believing they were the only two Jews left alive, Judy and Rachel decided to leave the convent. By then Judy was very ill, so Rachel took her to a hospital in Gdansk and left her there to get treatment.
- A few days later, Rachel returned to Judy in the hospital accompanied by a German woman. The woman’s husband was an SS officer but the family agreed to give the girls housing and food if they work as their servants. Judy and Rachel pretended to be Anna and Uta, Lithuanian Catholics.
- Judy and Rachel worked for this German family at a Wehrmacht station supporting German troops and keeping their fake identities. They were forced to live in the barn and eat like animals from the floor.
- As Allied forces began liberating areas of Poland, Germans began to evacuate and flee to other German occupied territories. The German family arranged for Judy and Rachel to travel with them by boat to Denmark.
- On the way to Denmark their boat was struck by a torpedo and the sisters survived by clinging to debris until rescued by another fishing boat. They were brought to Denmark and given shelter in a refugee center.
- Judy and Rachel maintained false identities while living in the German displaced persons camp in Denmark until the country was liberated from Nazi rule on May 5, 1945. They came forward to the Red Cross as Jewish survivors. Stunned that two Jews were hiding in the refugee center, a Red Cross nurse asked the girls to sign their name in Hebrew to prove their Jewish identity.
- The girls initially remained in Denmark where they regained their health and were taken in by a Danish couple, Paula and Svend Jensen.
- Judy and Rachel met another survivor from Stutthof and the woman told them she had learned her husband survived Dachau and was living in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Judy and Rachel sent a poster with their photos and contact information to the same camp in Italy. Their brother Abe saw the poster and sent them a postcard telling them he had tried to get to Israel but could not because of the British blockade. He soon after emigrated to Toronto, Canada and asked them to join him there.
- Judy decided to leave Denmark and traveled to Canada to be reunited with her brother in 1949. Judy met her first husband, Gabe Cohen, on the boat to Canada. Gabe was returning from Israel where he had been fighting in Israel's War Of Independence. They married and had three children, Mina, Michael and Debby.
- Rachel married a Dane, Yosfa Levitin, had a son Oscar, and then also moved to Toronto to be near her brother Abe.
- While living in Philadelphia, Judy became involved in various Civil Rights actions.
- In 1963, days after attending Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, Judy saw on the news that a black family moving into a white neighborhood in Folcroft, PA was facing violent riots and protests at their new home. More than 1,500 people had gathered, throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at the Baker family.
- Judy baked her favorite merengue cookies and drove to the Baker house to deliver a care package and show them her support.
- Judy began speaking and teaching about her experiences as a way to inspire others 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