Mendocino film festival paying tribute to a survivor

Standing at the door of Poland's Stutthof gas chamber in 1941, a teenage girl clung to her mother.

Confusion broke out.

"The guard was drinking," she remembers. "I was completely naked. My mother went over the threshold. I was able to get out. A sentry was watching. It was a miracle he didn't kill me."

In the courtyard, someone removed a lice-infested, striped prison dress from one of the corpses and draped it around the shivering youngster. "Run back to your barracks," she was commanded.

The girl caught up with her sister and relayed to her the horrific news, "We don't have our mother."

Two weeks later the pair was forced on a Nazi death march with 7,000 other Jews that originated in Konigsberg, Russia, and terminated in murder for all but a very few.

"Tak for Alt" is three filmmakers' tribute to Holocaust survivor Judith Meisel. When she and her sister Rachel finally made it to Denmark at the end of a long and terrifying journey, she thought, "we were the only two Jews left."

In their 61-minute film, University of Southern California students Laura Biales, Broderick Fox and Sarah Levy retraced Meisel's life from her 1929 birth in Josvania, Lithuania, to her harrowing escape from the Nazis and her ultimate fight against racism during the civil rights movement in the United States.

The film, shot in 1998 with Meisel in Europe and the United States, will screen at 8 p.m. tomorrow during the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community's 14th Festival of Jewish Film in Caspar. Meisel will be present to discuss the film and answer questions.

"'Tak for Alt' is Danish for 'thank you for everything,'" said Meisel in a phone interview from Santa Barbara, where she now lives.

She learned the phrase from a Lutheran woman in Denmark, who, along with her husband, wanted to adopt the hapless sisters after their liberation.

"When I say, 'Thank you for food,' she would say, 'No, you have to say thank you for everything,'" Meisel was told by the Danish woman, whose name was Paula. "Tak for Alt" is dedicated to her.

On Jan. 31 the New York Times reported the erection of a monument to honor the 7,000 Jews who died in the death march Meisel and her sister survived, along with a reported 11 others.

"I escaped the second day of the march," when Russian bombs began falling, said Meisel. "I always wondered what happened to the rest of the people," many of whom were elderly and weak.

According to the New York Times report, the frostbitten marchers were either ordered to the beach or to an open mine and shot with Nazi pistols. Others were driven into the icy sea and then mowed down with bullets as they fled for their lives.

Meisel and her sister, traveling from house to house, eventually were taken into a convent. "They were very kind to us," said Meisel of the nuns. "In Stutthof my hair was all torn out and there were sores on my head. They bathed me, but they couldn't keep us unless we converted."

That was something the girls did not want to do. "We only wanted to survive as Jews," Meisel said.

They finally were able to sail to Denmark, "and on May 5, 1945, we were liberated by the British," she said.

"When they told me I was free, I collapsed. I had no energy." And because "there were no Jews in Denmark, we still thought we were the only two Jews left."

When they told a Red Cross worker they were Jews, "she wouldn't believe it," said Meisel.

"'Do you know where you are?'" the Red Cross worker asked the teens.

"'We know we're not in Nazi Germany,'" they replied.

When asked to prove their identity, Meisel said, "we signed our name in Hebrew."

Some 34 PBS stations nationwide, including KQED, have bought "Tak for Alt" for airing this spring, according to Meisel. The film is making its Northern California debut at the Mendocino film fest.

Also on the program is "The Personals," the 1999 Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary Short. The 37-minute film features elderly people looking for dates through the personal ads.

"Daughter of the Bride," which was nominated for a 1997 Academy Award, will complete the bill. The 30-minute documentary is about a family's reaction to the remarriage of their 66-year-old mother.

"Delta Jews," which appeared in the 1999 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, will screen at 2 p.m. Sunday.

It is paired with the 47-minute short "Hitchhikers." The movie tells of Yehezkel, on his way to Tel Aviv, who picks up an Orthodox soldier, a free-spirited young woman and an Israeli Arab.

The final program begins at 8 p.m. Sunday with "Jewish Soul, American Beat," which is currently screening at the Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival.

It will be followed by "Jews and Buddhism: Belief Amended, Faith Revealed," which debuted in the 1999 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Tickets to the film festival are $8 each or $20 for the series; $7 and $18 for older adults. For information, call Mark Zarlin at (707) 937-0341.