It is natural for 7-year-olds to fear imaginary boogeymen. But when Judy Jacobs was 7, her boogeymen were all too real.
In the summer of 1944, they stood in front of her at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, brandishing machine guns and cracking whips.
“ You swine!”
they shouted. “ You dirty Jews! We’ll take care of you! You don’t deserve to live!”
She should have been playing with dolls or out riding her bike in the streets of her home in Budapest, Hungary. Instead, the little girl was out of her mind with fear, clinging to her mother in shock and disbelief.
Her captors warehoused her and her parents in filthy, overcrowded wooden barracks overrun with mice, rats, lice, fleas and cockroaches. Her meals: meager. Eventually she grew listless and emaciated, a skin-and-bones skeleton too tired to do anything but stare at the ceiling and wait for death.
Still, against all odds, “have hope,” her mother told her with as much of a smile as she could muster. “Don’t give up.”
“Yes, Mommy,” her daughter replied.
Today, on her 77th birthday, on the day the Jewish Community Center commemorates the 70th anniversary of the deportation of more than 430,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, that little girl is one of life’s winners. Jacobs and her husband, David — a retired pathologist — have been married 56 years. They have a comfortable home in Overland Park, four grown children and eight grandchildren. And despite not knowing English when she came to America in 1946, that frightened little girl graduated from the University of Michigan and earned a master’s in finance and a doctorate in educational finance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
As one of the youngest of a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, Jacobs feels a responsibility to tell her story so the world will not forget.
“Hate is not
gone,” she said.
That was clear earlier this month when a gunman killed two people outside the Jewish Community Center and one outside the Village Shalom retirement complex. Judy Jacobs’ former daughter-in-law, Barb Jacobs, was parked just behind the car where the shooter killed a man and his grandson. She spent hours in lockdown inside the center, worrying that he would enter the building. Handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. ranted “Heil Hitler.” He had a long history of anti-Jewish hatred, including membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Prosecutors have charged him with murder.
“This is horrible,” Jacobs said. “It is heartbreaking.”
But it also is atypical, she said, an exception in an otherwise wonderful city.
“This was a single hate crime that has been handled very well, and everybody condemned it,” she said. “That wasn’t the case during the Holocaust. Back then it was pervasive, and many applauded the atrocities.”
Life started happily for Jacobs, the only child of “very comfortable” upper-middle-class parents. Her father, Bela Gondos, was a successful radiologist, while her mother, Anna Ilona Havas, a painter with training in art and design, stayed home. But changes came suddenly.
Under pressure from Germany, Hungary passed one anti-Jewish law after another beginning in 1938, a year after Jacobs was born.
“They were never as bad as the laws in Germany,” she said. “But after a time, Jews couldn’t own businesses.”
After Hungary joined the Axis in the early ’40s, the Allies began a brutal bombing campaign that devastated Budapest. Shortages abounded. Jacobs went to bed in her clothes in the freezing cold as air raid sirens added a chilling lullaby.
She started first grade in a Jewish day school in the fall of 1943. But after winter break, she didn’t go back.
In 1944, German troops entered Hungary to deal with the Jews themselves.
“They made us all wear a yellow star, restricted our time outdoors and cut off all communication,” Jacobs said. “We lost our telephones and our radios. The press was censored, as was our mail. We couldn’t use public transportation. If we violated our curfew, we would be arrested.”
Non-Jewish neighbors began to tattle.
“Juden!” they would say, pointing out Jews who dared flout the laws.
Not all neighbors were bad. Sensing serious trouble, one offered to take young Judy into his family and raise her as his own until conditions improved. Grateful as they were, Jacobs’ parents declined the offer. Children should be with their family. And the trouble, they hoped, was temporary.
Nazis took what they wanted from the Jews: their businesses, their homes, their possessions. And eventually they took them. Many men were forced to serve in the Hungarian Labor Service, sweeping minefields, digging ditches and building latrines for the Hungarian army.
Others were sent to concentration camps or marched to the banks of the Danube, where they were lined up and shot into the river.
As she tells her story, Jacobs puts on a brave face. But when her voice catches, her eyes give her away. Many relatives, including aunts, cousins and three of her grandparents, died at the hands of the Germans in gas chambers.
“Nazi bastards,” she clarified.
The Nazis also took over her father’s medical office.
“They ordered him to leave,” she said. “He begged the soldiers, asking if he could just take some medical records. He still might have been able to help his patients if only he could have ”
The soldiers refused.
By 1944, the war was going badly, and the Nazis needed money. At the same time, Jacobs’ desperate father searched for a way to save his family. He heard of an influential Hungarian Jew named Rezso Kasztner, a lawyer and journalist who made a deal with Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust. Eichmann agreed to spare certain Jews for money. Her father applied to be on the Kasztner train. In all, in the summer of 1944, more than 1,680 Jews, including Jacobs and her parents, boarded Kasztner’s “rescue train.”
They were packed into filthy cattle cars with no food or water and only one pot in which to go to the bathroom. They believed they were headed to freedom in Lisbon, Portugal. Unknown to them, Kasztner didn’t yet have all the money.
As a result, the train didn’t go to Lisbon. After seven days it arrived at Bergen-Belsen, the same concentration camp where Anne Frank eventually died of typhus.
Jacobs was terrified.
For 5 1/2 months she survived on what her father estimated was less than 350 calories a day. They received stale bread or rice and a black liquid in the morning, and a foul orange liquid that passed for soup at night. Every day guards forced them to line up for roll call, where they often stood for hours in the heat, the cold, the rain and the snow. Over time their dirty clothes became tattered, and their shoes so broken some used cloth or wood to fashion makeshift bottoms.
Through it all, Jacobs’ mother stayed strong. Even with no soap, she stuck young Judy in a laundry tub every day and scrubbed her from head to toe using only cold water.
“Have hope,” she’d remind her beloved child softly, smiling down at her with loving eyes. “Don’t give up.”
Easier said than done. One night Jacobs’ mother wanted to give up herself. She went to sleep thinking it was the end. But she awoke with an idea. She could teach the camp children art! That day she organized a class, gave the kids sticks, and showed them how to draw butterflies, flowers, birds and other symbols of hope in the dirt. The class boosted morale.
It was just enough to get them to one day in December, when everything changed.
“Get ready to leave,” a guard told them.
Two days later Jacobs and her parents — and more than 1,680 other Jewish prisoners — were taken back to the railroad station. This time Nazi soldiers put them on a heated passenger train and gave them sardines and chocolate.
And then, the train started to move. It was too much to believe. They were leaving!
The train stopped just before the Swiss border town of St. Gallen. Jacobs watched as someone from the Swiss side carrying a big suitcase delivered it to a German officer.
And then, just like that, the Jews were ushered off the train.
“I’ll tell you what the best feeling in the world was,” Jacobs said. “As we pulled into St. Gallen I heard church bells. Now, I’m Jewish. Church bells don’t mean anything to me.”
Except these were the bells of freedom.
Jacobs got out just in time. Back at Bergen-Belsen more than 10,000 unburied bodies were found after British forces liberated it a year later. While the camp didn’t have gas chambers, more than 35,000 died of starvation, overwork, disease, brutality and sadistic medical experiments.
Jacobs knows she was lucky. And she grieves for those who never had a chance to live their lives.
In 1946, she immigrated to America with her parents. While it was a great opportunity to start a new life, it couldn’t replace what had been taken.
“One of the things I lost was my childhood,” she said. “I just don’t know how to play, and I grew up too quickly. While other kids were playing dolls and riding bikes, I was running to the air-raid shelter or being told by my mother not to go out because the Nazis were in the streets. “But somehow I’ve come out of this hole, and I am a functional human being.”
Her family settled in the Washington, D.C., area near her father’s brother. Zolton Gondos, a physician in Arlington, Va., sponsored the family and helped her father establish his practice.
She entered fourth grade in Falls Church, Va., speaking virtually no English. That changed quickly.
“When I got my first report card I had an A in spelling, but I had a C in citizenship because I was a chatterbox,” she said. “But by the end of that year I was an A student.”
She met her future husband at the University of Michigan at a campus mixer.
David Jacobs, a medical student, walked timidly across the floor toward the prettiest girl, and asked Judy to dance. Later he called her for a date and was awed by her story.
“She is resilient,” he said. “She is a survivor. And she came out of this horrible, horrible experience relatively intact. I think that’s amazing.”
Shortly after graduating from medical school, David Jacobs was drafted and sent to Fort Riley, Kan. One day he got a three-day pass and drove to Kansas City. He liked it. In 1963, he took a job at Menorah Hospital and later moved to Providence Hospital. The couple’s children grew up in the Kansas City area.
Fifty-six years and four kids later, she has given him a wonderful life.
“I’m extremely fortunate,” he said.
Many others feel the same way after hearing Jacobs speak. She downplays any accolades.
“I think my parents deserve the respect,” she said. “They sheltered and shielded me (and) worked very hard to build a very good life. The credit goes to them. I don’t feel like I deserve much.”
“Nonsense,” said Donna Gould Cohen, a friend from Leawood. “It’s so easy to say ‘Poor me,’ ” Cohen said. “Not Judy.
When she came to the United States she didn’t look back. She came, she graduated from college, married Dave, got her doctorate and raised four wonderful children. And it’s like, ‘Look. I did it, despite what you tried to do to me!’ ”
Her children cannot give their mother enough credit.
“My mom and my grandparents are the three strongest people I’ve ever known,” said Jacobs’ daughter Diane Jacobs, a lawyer in Austin, Texas. “Their resilience is just staggering to me.”
As is her mother’s dedication to telling her story.
For Judy Jacobs, whose mother died in 1985 and father died in 2003, it is a sacred obligation.
“I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility,” she said. “As morbid and as horrible as this story is, I feel compelled to keep it alive, to tell the story so that, hopefully, (we) will learn something. And maybe it will keep someone (in the future) from being inhuman to his fellow man.”
She has asked her children to keep her story alive after she dies and to live lives of service and joy.
“You have to go out and talk about it,” Diane Jacobs said. “And when you see wrong being done you’ve got to step up. You’ve got to say something. That’s my mom’s message.”
Just ask Tom Jacobs, a son who directs environmental programs at the Mid-America Regional Council.
“Given the shootings and other circumstances around the world it (is critical) to understand that the lessons of the Holocaust are every bit as important as they once were,” he said. “It is important that I am diligent in my life to try to advance ideas of tolerance, love and community.”
So now, after everything — after the tempests and the terror, the hatred and the Holocaust, the joy and the love — the final score of Judy Jacobs’ life can be tallied for all to see.
Little girl, 1. Boogeymen, nothing.
A controversial legacy
Rezko Kasztner said his dealings with Nazi officials — including Adolf Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust — was necessary to save lives.
But 70 years later, Kasztner remains controversial. Some hail him as a hero, the Hungarian Oskar Schindler. Others call him a Nazi collaborator. Critics point to a 1960 interview in Life Magazine where Eichmann, before being executed for war crimes in Israel, expressed respect for Kasztner’s pragmatism.
“I believe that Kastner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand of his blood to achieve his political goal,” he said. ‘You can have the others,’ he would say, ‘but let me have this group here.’ And because Kastner rendered us a great service by helping keep the deportation camps peaceful, I would let his groups escape. After all, I was not concerned with small groups of a thousand or so Jews. That was the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ I had with Kastner.”
In 1957, Kasztner was assassinated in Tel Aviv. A 2008 award-winning documentary about him was titled “Killing Kasztner.”
“He was trying to do a good thing,” Judy Jacobs said. “He had a tremendous gift for communicating, and he was able to communicate with these bastards.”
The 2014 Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Memorial Service will be at 1:30 p.m. today at the Jewish Community Campus, 5801 W. 115th St., Overland Park. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the deportation of more than 430,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
The candlelighting ceremony includes Holocaust survivors, children and grandchildren of survivors, Jewish war veterans and more. Six candles will be lit in memory of the 6 million Jews who perished. The service also honors those who survived the Nazi genocide.
This event is coordinated by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee.
The community is invited to attend at no charge.
Also, paintings by Judy Jacobs’ mother are on display at the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, 5500 W. 123rd St., Overland Park. “A Creative Spark: The Art of Anna Ilona Gondos” runs through May 18.