Judy Meisel survived the Holocaust by escaping from a Nazi concentration camp. She moved to the United States, became a fighter for civil rights and met the Rev. Martin Luther King. Last fall, her lifelong fight for justice came full circle when she submitted testimony for the trial of an accused Nazi war criminal — a guard at the camp where she had been held.
On Sunday, the St. Louis Park woman will receive an award in Chaska from the FBI honoring her dramatic story and dedication to fighting hatred and bigotry. Meisel's grandson, Ben Cohen, a filmmaker working on a documentary about her, will speak.
"We're all human beings, we're different religions but we all belong to each other as human beings," said Meisel, who turned 90 on Thursday.
Police Chief Scott Knight arranged for the exhibit's stop in Chaska; when he heard about Meisel's award, he decided to combine the two.
"This is a chapter in history that must never be forgotten," Knight said.
The FBI Director's Community Leadership Award honors people and organizations who do "exemplary things helping law enforcement right the wrongs of the world," said Kevin Smith, public affairs officer in the bureau's Minneapolis Division.
A website created by Cohen tells Meisel's story in detail. Born in Lithuania, she was 15 in June 1944 when she, her sister and their mother were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp, which was built by Germans near what is now Gdansk, Poland. She was tortured and beaten and witnessed numerous horrors.
That November, she and her mother were in a group being led to the gas chamber. She had one foot inside the building when a guard ordered Meisel to run back to the barracks. She never saw her mother again.
In January 1945, as the Russian army advanced closer to Stutthof, the Nazis sent the prisoners on a "death march." She and her sister managed to escape, enduring further terrifying experiences before making it safely to Denmark.
Years later while living in Philadelphia, Meisel heard about a mob of white people throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the home of a newly arrived black family. Meisel pushed through the mob and welcomed the family with a plate of cookies.
She became active in the civil rights movement, sharing her experiences with students and others to demonstrate the importance of fighting bigotry.
She was thrilled to meet the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — "I have to tell you, he created something special in me" — and years later felt joy when Barack Obama was elected president.
In 2017, she was asked by German authorities to provide testimony in the trial of Johann Rehbogen, whom she recognized from a photo as an SS officer who had been a guard at Stutthof. Rehbogen, now 96, was tried last fall as an accessory to murder, said Cohen, who traveled to Germany for the trial. The proceedings were interrupted when Rehbogen fell ill; the trial was delayed by two weeks, at which point German law called for it to end and restarted later.
Rehbogen's age makes it unlikely the trial will ever be concluded, Cohen said. But he said getting a verdict was less important than spreading Meisel's message.
"For us, it's about educating people about what happened and making sure that no one can forget what happened, and that no one can deny what happened," he said.
Katy Read • 612-673-4583