Judy Meisel has spent most of her life pursuing justice and speaking out against hatred.
When Meisel was a young girl growing up in Lithuania, German Nazis segregated the Jewish population, forcing her family to live in the Kovno ghetto for nearly four years. She was then transported to Stutthof concentration camp to work for the Nazis for six months during World War II.
She’s been an activist ever since.
“We have to treat each other like people. Hate has to be gone,” she said, adding that at the ghetto and concentration camp, fellow prisoners would tell one another that whoever survived must tell the world what happened.
“I want to remember my mother and all the people who were killed,” she said. “They were mothers, fathers, children — and they went and killed them,” she said.
Meisel, now 90 years old, continues to speak about her experience at high schools, colleges and community events.
“She’s the strongest person I know,” said her grandson Benjamin Cohen. “She’s been able to use her story as a form of activism to teach about tolerance, equality, and the value of human life.”
Meisel’s next appearance will be at the Chaska Community Center from 6:30-8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10 as part of the Transfer of Memory Exhibit, where she will be given the 2018 FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award.
The event was put together locally by the Chaska Human Rights Commission, Police Department and Parks and Recreation Department, according to a report by City Administrator Matt Podhradsky.
Cohen will also be there to discuss his grandmother’s story, and his account of seeing a surviving Nazi guard from the Stutthof concentration camp. Meisel recently identified the guard to German officials and is a plaintiff in a case against the man.
Meisel was just a young girl when Germany invaded Lithuania.
Over 140 of her relatives were subsequently murdered by killing squads and her immediate family was forced to live in a ghetto in a suburb near the country’s capital. Meisel, who had blond hair and blue eyes, was trained to sneak out of the fenced-in ghetto for food and supplies, according to a website about Meisel, created by Cohen.
In 1944, Meisel, her sister Rachel and her mother Mina were packed into a train destined for Auschwitz and were later chosen to go to Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. Her brother, Abe, was separated from the family and transported to Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
At the camp, Jews were treated less than human.
Meisel said she saw a baby get pulled from its mother, who had tried to hide it under her shirt, and thrown to the ground. Both mother and baby were subsequently killed, she said.
“We weren’t allowed even a toothbrush; we had no medication or clothing,” Meisel said.
Meisel was forced to work in a metal factory and after six months she was in line to enter a gas chamber with her mother, when a guard yelled at her to go back to the barracks, she recounted. That was the last time she saw her mother.
In January 1945, Meisel, her sister and other prisoners were forced on a “death march” as the Allies closed in on the concentration camp. During the march, the Allies started bombing the area and the two girls were able to escape and fell asleep in a coal bin by a house, according to the website.
A Russian POW, working on a farm owned by an SS official, found them and gave them food, advised them to pretend to be Lithuanian Catholics and led them to a convent of nuns.
At the convent, Rachel fell ill and in delirium spoke Yiddish and the two girls were found out. While the nuns nursed Rachel back to good health, they decided to leave.
The two then start working as servants, under the guise of being Catholics, in exchange for food and shelter for a Nazi family.
As the Allies got closer to the area, the family arranged for the girls to go with them to Denmark. However, their boat was hit by a torpedo and the girls clung to debris until they were rescued by a fishing boat, according to Meisel’s website.
They ultimately reached a displaced persons camp in Denmark, where they told the authorities they were Jewish, Meisel said.
“They didn’t believe us, so they asked us to write our names in Yiddish,” she said.
After the war, a woman told Meisel she found her husband who had been sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Knowing her brother was sent there, her sister and Meisel sent a poster to the area looking for her brother.
“He wrote to us immediately after he saw that,” she said
She went to Toronto to be reunited with her brother. On the boat ride over, she met her first husband, Gabe Cohen.
In 2017, German officials interviewed Meisel about her time in the Stutthof concentration camp.
In those interviews, she identified a guard, Johann Rehbogen, who is now facing accusations he helped murder hundreds of people at the concentration camp.
When the family first learned of the investigation, Cohen decided to make a documentary about his grandmother’s life and as part of it, he traveled to Germany to film and see the trial for himself.
There he saw Rehbogen in court.
“It was important to me that someone would be present in that courtroom. I know my grandmother would have wanted to go,” he said. “The best thing I thought I could do is go myself and witness the proceedings.”
However, the trial was suspended after the judge questioned if Rehbogen, 95, was well enough, Cohen said, adding Rehbogen had placed his head on the table during the proceedings and the judge asked him if he could still follow.
Cohen believes that under German law, no verdict will come of the trial because the suspension exceeded a two-week limit.
“I don’t expect Germany will ever be able to move forward with this trial again because of his age,” Cohen said. “I do know there are other guards out there who are yet to be indicted and I would like Germany to aggressively move forward with that.”
“Every day that passes, justice is lost,” he said.
Though, Cohen doesn’t believe the trial will move forward, he said he was thankful it happened.
During the proceedings, he was the only person who was related to a survivor of the camp in the audience and international journalists gave him the opportunity to tell his grandmother’s story across the world.
He was even on German television and interviewed by the New York Times.
“I think we’re approaching a future, where it’s more important than ever that these stories are shared,” he said.
Passing through the Chaska Community Center gallery, portraits featuring smiling couples, families and individuals give off a warm glow.
Originally, photographer David Sherman, took the photos in both color and black and white, said Laura Zelle, director of Tolerance Minnesota and Holocaust Education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“We decided it was important to not keep the Holocaust survivors in their victimhood,” she said. “We wanted them to be in full color in their homes with smiles on their faces. We asked them if they had a message for future generations and a lot of them spoke to love and not to hate and not to focus on differences.”
“If you look at the photos, they’re just full of life and in color,” she said.
Below the photos, details a short account of the subject’s time during World War II. Some of the portraits include a woman who temporarily found safety in a secret underground railroad for Jewish children, and a family who went into hiding with the help of their Christian neighbors.
In total, the exhibit has 45 portraits with 53 participants. Twenty-three of those pictured have passed away.
As Holocaust drifts further into the past, Zelle notes it’s important the stories of survivors aren’t forgotten.
“They are reminders of the values of freedom and the enduring human spirit,” Zelle said. “As we move further away from the Holocaust it’s really important that these survivors’ stories continue to teach us.”
Not many people might expect a Republican state senator from Carver County, one of the most conservative counties in Minnesota, to co-author legislation legalizing marijuana.
But Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, believes he’s up to the challenge.
“If I don’t put myself in a position where I’m a strong participant in these discussions, I’m short-changing not just the constituents in Carver County, but short-changing citizens of Minnesota,” Jensen said.
On Jan. 28, Jensen became the only Republican co-author of the Senate bill to legalize recreational use of cannabis for those over 21, with Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, as the chief sponsor. A House bill has also been introduced, with no Republican co-authors.
“Three months ago I could not have envisioned myself standing at a podium speaking on a marijuana issue, but I’ve had numerous constituents ask me to get involved. They said, ‘Doc, with your scientific background, your awareness of what’s going on in the field, you need to do this, you need to be on the side of this that’s moving this discussion forward,” Jensen said, at a Jan. 28 press conference announcing the bill.
That said, in a phone interview, Jensen said he told Franzen that he would not vote for the introduced bill. Jensen said he’s more interested in a “robust discussion” about the issue.
“We have to remember that we can’t know what we don’t know,” he said.
“In some form, I could see voting for decriminalization of marijuana. I don’t know if decriminalization is the same as legalization,” Jensen said.
“It would be hard for me this year to vote for a legalization bill. I don’t think we know enough,” he said.
Jensen raised a handful of issues to consider, such as any role marijuana may have as a gateway drug, marijuana-laced edibles and impaired driving.
“The only way we can learn about what we don’t know is roll up our sleeves and start discussing it,” he said.
As a medical doctor, Jensen said he’s been watching the issue closely.
He notes that the criteria to be prescribed medical marijuana, which is legal in Minnesota, has become broad, to include common maladies such as sleep apnea. He said he did a poll of two weeks of his patients over the age of 50 and found that three-fourths would qualify for medical marijuana.
He also notes other states, including Michigan, have legalized marijuana. Two Minnesota groups advocating cannabis legalization received enough votes last election to receive major political party status, Jensen said.
“I think it’s a ship that’s already sailed. It’s a question of when and how it’s going to happen,” he said.
Legalization of marijuana elicits varied response from residents.
Chanhassen resident Charles Ehlers is concerned that marijuana is a gateway drug to harsher drugs, something he said he’s witnessed first-hand. He is also concerned about impaired driving and marijuana’s impact on youth brain development.
“It should go to a vote, statewide vote. Nine other states have legalized (recreational) marijuana. “But you don’t know what the ramifications of those states are,” he said.
“At this point it’s not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s an issue,” he said.
Mark Halla, CEO of The Mustard Seed landscaping in Chanhassen, is open to the idea of marijuana legalization.
“I’ve come full circle on my opinion,” said Halla. His change of heart is due to his son, a cannabis sales director in Colorado, where recreational use is legal.
Halla notes recreational usage comes with problems like other drugs, such as alcohol or tobacco. “I personally think alcohol is much more harmful to our society,” he notes.
He also believes that soon it will be legalized on a national level. States that legalize marijuana “are going to be on the ground floor for something that’s going to be legal at some point,” he said.
At a recent town hall meeting, Jensen asked the 150 participants if legislators should have a serious discussion about legalizing marijuana. He said that 90 percent of the crowd raised their hands. When asked for “no” votes, he said only five or six hands went up.
Jensen said he’s been getting some heat for co-sponsoring the bill, but is getting used to political flack.
Jensen gets a reality check while working as a doctor and treating seriously ill patients.
“It’s not cancer,” he said. “It’s just a difference of opinion.”