Holocaust survivor speaks at UNH remembrance service in West Haven
Ninety-six-year-old Isidor “Izzy” Juda has had a long career and an even longer, quite full life that has included two wives, two children, two married grandsons and now three great-grandchildren.
Take that, Hitler.
Sadly, many of Juda’s aunts, uncles and cousins who remained in Europe when he and his immediate family fled German-occupied Austria were not so lucky.
They perished in the Holocaust, along with 6 million other European Jews — about two-thirds of the pre-war total — and millions more from other persecuted groups.
Those included Roma (Gypsies), ethnic Poles, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents of the Nazis and people who were incurably sick.
But Juda, keynote speaker Tuesday, April 10 at the University of New Haven’s 15th annual Holocaust Rememberance Day memorial service, somehow managed to make it out — and was pleasantly surprised to see that his parents and sister also had made it when he finally arrived in the United States, he told a dead-quiet auditorium.
The 150 or so people in the university’s Bucknall Theater listened intently as the Jewish New Haven man — one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in the area — talked about what he himself did, saw and lived through beginning 80 years ago.
University of New Haven’s Holocaust Remembrance Day observance took place this year two days before Yom Hashoah, or worldwide Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is observed from sundown Wednesday to sundown Thursday.
The service was held by Professor Emeritus Ira Kleinfeld. It included a candle lighting, poetry readings by members of the university Theater Department, a tribute to Metropolitan Stefan, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria — who successfully resisted the Nazis’ calls for that country to cooperate in the deportation of its Jews — and a reading of the names of victims related to those in the audience.
It also included several efforts to link the commemoration to other examples of genocide, include the most recent ones in Rwanda, the Darfur region of Sudan and most recently of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Rabbi Andrew Hechtman offered a memorial prayer.
But at its center was Juda’s first-person testimony.
Born in Vienna on Sept. 18, 1921 — and a student in business college when Hitler’s Nazis first marched into Vienna in March 1938 — Juda took a train across Austria and eventually made his way, after an extremely close call with German soldiers, into Switzerland.
From there, Juda, who now lives at Tower One in New Haven, was able to get to Italy and ultimately onto a boat to the America, where he had relatives in Vineland, N.J.
For a man who has been through so much — including being drafted into the U.S. Army to go fight in the Pacific during War War II soon after arriving in this country — Juda’s talk began in rather pedestrian fashion.
He was born. He started his schooling at age 6, went to both religious and secular school. He had his Bar Mitzvah at age 13.
“There was anti-Semitism, but ... we, as Jews, were able to live a normal life until 1933-34, when the name of Adoph Hitler became known,” Juda said.
His dream was to become a doctor, but financial issues and the fact that he was a Jew stood in the way. So he went to business college.
But things were about to dramatically change.
In 1938, there were just over one million people in Vienna, of which about 175,000 were Jews. But by the end of 1945 there were only 8,000 Jews left, Juda said.
“On March 12, 1938, when I was on my way home from business school ... I was not able to cross one of the main streets of the city,” Juda said. “Adoph Hitler was entering the city of Vienna. There were lines of people cheering the man whose goal was to take over Austria and the rest of the world.”
Soon, there were restrictions on what Jews could do. They could only go to Jewish doctors and hospitals, shop at Jewish-owned stores “if they had not already been destroyed by the Nazis, and there were many, many other restrictions,” he said.
At one point, “I asked my teacher why these restrictions were happening,” Juda said. “I was told it would be better not to ask ... if you don’t want to go to a camp.”
The following week, “all Jewish students were told not to return to school,” he said.
Soon after, Nazi troops began rounding up Jews and holding them in school buildings, he said. At one point, he saw a German soldier on the fourth floor of one school building holding a small child by the legs and hitting the child against the building.
“After the child was entirely bloodied, he dropped it to the ground,” Juda said.
Two days later, “my dad’s younger sister came to our house crying that her husband had been arrested and taken away,” he said.
Meanwhile, some of his and his family’s former friends turned against them, he said.
Juda and a friend began actively discussing the need to leave — something he ultimately did without telling his parents, “because they would never have let me go.”
As things continued to deteriorate, his family contacted his father’s family and began applying to visas to come to the U.S.
The night before he left, he told his mother that he was going to the Jewish hospital the next morning to have them look at a cut on his hand. Then, early the next morning, he took some money that his father had hidden and left home “with only the clothes on my back.”
He bought a ticket to Salzburg, without knowing how he was going to get from there to the Swiss border. He got lucky and was able to stay on the train to the next stop, which was the last before Switzerland, then began making his way to the border.
After being stopped by Nazi SS men while crossing a bridge in the middle of the night, he was put on a train going back toward Salzburg, but at one point, inexplicably, the train slowed, and “for no apparent reason, I took a chance and jumped off the train.”
He laid on the ground until the train left, then found that he recognized where he was and headed for the border. He ran into a friendly person who helped him avoid the SS station on the border and find a safe place to cross into Switzerland.
Juda ultimately made it — with a Nazi-issued 1938 passport stamped with a red “J” — to Genoa, Italy and onto a boat to the United States, arriving in New York on May 13, 1940. There, he was greeted by his parents — who had arrived six months earlier — and he had a job waiting for him in New Jersey.
He was drafted in into the U.S. Army in 1942 and went off to fight in the war, receiving his discharge — and a Purple Heart — in 1945.