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Holocaust survivor in Kansas shares her story as reminder of horrors of hate

Judy Jacobs survived Bergen-Belsen with her parents
Judy Jacobs
Posted at 11:09 AM, Jun 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-15 14:09:33-04

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Judy Jacobs of Overland Park, Kansas, shared her story of survival at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II.

Jacobs says she was a happy girl.

"I had a wonderful early childhood," she said.

She was the only child, and the only grandchild, on one side. She remembers being doted on and "spoiled rotten."

Her family lived a privileged life, she said, her father a radiologist and her mother an artist and decorator.

Jacobs was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1937. Just one year later, Hungary passed its first anti-Jewish laws, patterned after the German Nuremberg Laws, that restricted where Jews could work, who they could marry, and what they could do.

Sitting at her kitchen counter, Jacobs went through a photo album of her family. In one picture, she's smiling, her dark brown hair curled with a white bow on top. She was about 5 or 6 years old, which was a turning point not only in her life, but also in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Hungary.

Judy Jacobs as a child
Judy Jacobs as a child

"As Hitler's star rose over Europe in the '30s, Hungary was very complicit," Jacobs said. "They did everything Hitler wanted. Little by little, the terrible things that were happening in Germany also happened in Hungary."

Even as a child, she was aware of what was happening around her: Her family members were banned from running their businesses. Jews could only go outside for a couple of hours a day. By the time they could get to the market for groceries, there was hardly anything left. Jewish children weren't allowed at public or private schools, so she went to a Jewish day school.

"We went to school in the fall and then the heavy bombing of Budapest really began in late 1943, and I don't recall going to school at all after winter break," Jacobs said.

The Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944, when Jacobs was about to turn 7.

"That was really the beginning of the end," Jacobs said. "We thought things were bad before, but they became intolerable."

During this time, all communication was shut off. Their mail was censored and their phones were taken away. Jacobs' parents didn't know what was going on around the country, where many of their relatives were scattered.

They began hearing rumors about people being deported out of Hungary.

"We just knew that our time would come, we just didn't know when," Jacobs said.

On June 30, 1944, the Nazis ordered Jacobs' family and thousands of others to the train station in Budapest, where they were forced onto cattle cars with what little belongings they could carry in a suitcase.

"I didn't speak German at the time, but when these Nazi soldiers throw insults at you one after another, you begin to get the gist even if you don't know exactly what they're saying," Jacobs said. "'You filthy Jews, you have no reason to live.' This is terrible. They went on and on about how worthless we were."

Jacobs said it felt like they were on that train for a week. Dozens of people were crammed into the cattle cars, standing room only. Jacobs said there was no food or water and a single bucket for everyone to relieve themselves in.

When the train finally came to a stop, Jacobs remembers being herded like cattle to a forested area. She looked up at the sign at the station.

"We arrived at a concentration camp, the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp," Jacobs said.

Bergen-Belsen was in northern Germany, north of Hanover.

Again, they were forced to walk, with Nazis on horseback and on motorcycles on either side, hurling insults.

The camp was surrounded by multi-layers of barbed water with guard towers everywhere, as well as a sort of moat that made escape impossible, Jacobs said.

Bergen-Belsen did not have gas chambers like Auschwitz, but the conditions were inhumane.

Men and women were divided. The children stayed with the women. Jacobs said they were crammed into poorly ventilated barracks and slept on narrow bunks with dirty straw as a mattress. She said the barracks were infested with rats and other bugs, which carried disease.

"In the morning, we got some cold, brown liquid that they called coffee. We either got some rice, which was also cold and not very much, or a piece of stale bread," Jacobs said. "And then there was nothing until the end of the day, at which time we got, oh, a cross between a soup and a stew I guess. It was an orangey liquid, which always had a film floating at the top, and various and sundry things floating, and that was our dinner. Needless to say, everyone was skin and bones."

She said her father estimated they were eating 350 calories a day.

Every morning, they had to gather for roll call, but after that had no other obligations.

Decades later, she still recalls the interactions she and her family had with the Nazi guards.

"They'd go by and say, 'You vermin, you're subhuman.' And after hearing this every day for a month or so, I said to my mother, am I subhuman? I mean can you imagine what that does to a person's self-esteem?" Jacobs said.

At first, she says they were a spirited bunch. Those interested in art and music gathered for discussions. Teachers taught lessons to the kids, though there were no books.

Her dad and other physicians held medical clinics to the best of their abilities.

Jacobs remembers she woke up with boils on her legs one morning. Her father had brought sulfur pills with him, which he ground into a powder and mixed with vaseline to make an ointment. The women "sanitized" Jacobs' legs with water and heated up a sewing needle. They popped each of the boils while her father applied the ointment.

Soon, the boils went away. It was this ingenuity that got them through, Jacobs said.

But after a while, Jacobs said everyone got sicker and more apathetic.

Fall turned into bitter cold winter. Many prisoners were seriously sick and emaciated. Thousands had died.

Jacobs and many others didn't have coats or shoes. Her parents bartered a piece of an old blanket to wrap her in.

Amid the misery, Jacobs remembers one joyful memory with her mother.

"One morning at roll call, she announced she was going to teach an art class to kids. My mother had a stick and all the other kids had a stick. And with a stick, she taught the group how to draw things like butterflies and flowers," Jacobs said. "And for a little while, at least, it was a little hope and joy among the group."

In December 1944, the prisoners were marched to another train.

"And they had food for us – sardines and chocolate," Jacobs said. "Quite a combination, don't ask me how - I don't like either one, frankly, but believe me, it tasted wonderful at that time."

This train took them to Switzerland. Jewish organizations had paid a ransom for their release.

Although now free, Jacobs soon learned her grandparents and most of her extended family were killed at Auschwitz.

"I know they were gassed on the 30th of June 1944, which was exactly the date that we left Budapest," Jacobs said.

Jacobs and her parents immigrated to the United States in 1946, settling into the Washington, D.C., area.

Judy Jacobs and parents
Judy Jacobs and her parents in Switzerland, after their liberation from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944.

She got married, started a family, and has lived in the Kansas City area since 1963.

The Holocaust remains with her in many ways. She said she doubts people's motives; she wonders if people will hurt her.

"But it's been a good many years, and I guess I'm conditioned, and I realized that getting emotional doesn't really help anyone at this point, that the thing to do is to concentrate the facts and put them out there to the extent that you can," Jacobs said.

She earned an MBA and a Ph.D. from UMKC. She's received numerous recognitions and given countless speeches about her experience.

She believes bullying, hate and intolerance can be prevented and stopped at an early age.

She tells her story of survival for this reason.

"I think people need to know the depths to which humans can sink so that they can understand that and hopefully avert that in the future," Jacobs said.

This story was originally published by Sarah Plake at KSHB.