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Testimony of Judith, a Holocaust Survivor

Today, July 20, our institute group spent a couple hours with four Holocaust survivors. First, they shared just a bit of their experiences during the Holocaust. Then, each one of us could choose one of them to speak with more personally, which meant that each one of the survivors talked to nine or 10 of us and answered individual questions. I’d like to tell the story of one of them in this blog entry.

Holocaust survivor Judith shares her story.
Holocaust survivor Judith shares her story.

Judith was born in Venice, Italy, in 1939, an only child. She and her parents and grandmother lived happily for five years. Then her father disappeared. One day soon after that, her mother got a telephone call and turned very pale. Her mother and grandmother packed two suitcases, Judith took her doll and the three of them walked to a building in the city.

There, a Catholic neighbor sat down next to them and said, “Judith, you need to choose whether to come with me or stay with your mamma.”

Now, the little 5-year-old was very attached to her mother and of course wanted to stay with her. But her mother’s face was white and her eyes said, “Go with our neighbor.” That was a huge and terrible decision for a little girl to make, but she did it. 

The neighbor took Judith to a convent orphanage and said, “Don’t tell anyone you are Jewish.” For several weeks she didn’t, but as she got to know the other little girls she trusted them and she told them she was Jewish.

One of the oldest girls said, “Oh, no you’re not. I can tell by your belly button. Jews’ belly buttons stick out and Catholic belly buttons go in. So let’s see yours.”

Judith showed them her belly button, which went in.

“See, that proves it,” the girl said. “You are NOT Jewish!”    

Judith was with these girls and nuns for two years until 1946. One day, the mother superior told her she had visitors. Judith was sure it was her mommy. Instead, it was a strange man and woman.

“We are Jews, Judith, and we would like to take you to the land of Israel, where all the Jews are going,” they said. “Will you come with us?”  

“No, I want to stay here!” Judith replied. She felt love and attachment in the orphanage. But she also thought that maybe her mother was in this place where all the Jews are going.

“Judith, you go to your room and think about this, and in half an hour we’ll call you and you can tell us what you want to do,” the mother superior said.   

Judith as a little girl with her mom
Judith as a little girl with her mom

What a choice for a little 7-year-old who already lost all her family and now would lose her beloved mother superior and all her friends.

Well, Judith decided to go to Israel and had about a week until she actually had to leave. She was taken to a large building waiting for a visa. There, she met a group of children who were all going to Israel together, and she made friends. Then Judith was called and told there was a visa an old man could not use. She could have it but she would have to travel on the ocean alone and would be met by the couple who had come to the convent. Now she would be leaving her new playmates. A third huge decision! But Judith wanted so much to see her mommy and decided to go ahead.  

On the boat, she met three siblings, an older boy named Giuseppe and his younger brother and sister. When Giuseppe found out she was alone, he said, “OK, you can be my little sister and I’ll take care of you.” So, the four played together during the voyage. 

In Israel, the couple did meet Judith and took her to a children’s home where she and the other children lived, learned Hebrew and made a new home.

Judith never found her mom.    

She did connect with her mom’s sister in England and has visited her a few times.

Judith married and had a daughter, but she never told anyone about her childhood, not even her husband. Then came the day for her daughter to go to kindergarten. Judith had bought two dresses for the new school year. The daughter was sitting on her bed and couldn’t decide which dress to wear the first day.

“Can’t I wear both, mamma?” she asked.

“No, honey, you have to decide on one,” Judith replied.

At that moment, Judith suddenly remembered that at that same age, she had had to choose between her mother and the neighbor. All the memories came flooding out. So she took her little girl to kindergarten, bought a stack of notebooks, went home, and started writing. She couldn’t stop. Her husband had to pick up their daughter and cook dinner.  

This went on for more than a week. Finally, everything was written. Judith didn’t share her writings with anyone, but she felt different. Eventually, she let a friend read the books, but not her family.

When her daughter was 18 and had just left home for her army service, Judith showed her writings to her husband. Soon after that she published her story in a book called “The Girl Behind the Eyes.”

I felt somehow very close to Judith because of the love given her by the nuns and her attachment first to her mother, then the mother superior and then her friends. She was very calm when she said, “I have not yet forgiven those who took my family away from me.”