Two hours after Judy Lysy’s talk, my throat still carries its impact, an ache weighted with gratitude for this 84-year-old great-grandmother’s bravery. Ms. Lysy’s physical presence in Locke Library‘s program room testified to a beautiful fighting spirit before she even said a word.
Before the testimony started, I looked up some biographical facts in the booklet “Culture of Memory” published for the 32nd Annual Holocaust Education Week: “Judy Lysy was born in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, in 1928. She lived with her parents, sister and grandmother. In March 1944, Judy and her family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and from there to various slave labour camps. She was liberated in May 1945, by the US army. She immigrated to Canada, in 1952, with her husband and daughter” (page 32).
I was glad for the informative booklet, but nothing can compare to listening to a survivor tell her story in person. When Judy occasionally leaned on her cane or wiped her eyes with a tissue, these simple gestures found a way into my heart-memory that letters on a page cannot easily reach.
I heard the pain in her voice when she remembered that not a single one of her Christian neighbours made an attempt to protest or even look out of their windows when Judy’s family was being marched to the ghetto. And the spoken narrative provided more images that made history shockingly real:
The feathered cap of the gendarme who came to take the family to the ghetto. Judy’s grandmother praying in the cattle car for God to intervene. The brutal shearing of Judy’s ribbon-tied pigtails after she arrived at Auschwitz. The German guard eating his lunch of bread and meat with 45 inmates watching him intently, waiting for him to drop a piece of rind.
I’ll never forget Judy’s description of a tank smashing through the fence of the last of five concentration camps that she and her sister and mother endured: “An African-American man looked out from the tank and said, ‘We are the Army of the United States of America!'” Until that point in the talk, her voice had been steady, but it broke when she started to say the first part of the name of my home country. She cried through the pauses she made between “the United . . . States . . . of . . . America,” and the release of powerful emotions in a November 2012 talk seemed to mirror the beginning of release from horror in May 1945.
I’ve never felt prouder to be an American than when Judy Lysy made me see and feel the meaning of liberation. (Barack Obama’s election wins have created a similar pride). I felt the traumatized survivor’s cautious relief, her gratitude for the way the Americans provided baths and “pablo” (baby food) for the survivors, one of the few foods their stomachs could cope with after long periods of starvation.
I was very proud of Canada, too, when Judy spoke of how its acceptance of immigrants and refugees from all over the world actually restored her faith in God: “I love Canada! Living here with people of every colour and religion, I felt free to be me. And my children could go to any school they wanted.”
She leaned forward to address the two classes of grade sevens in attendance and said, “I want to give you some advice. When you grow up, vote for a government that protects minorities. I’m eighty-four years old and I know without a doubt that we all have hearts. We all have souls.”
Today I’m thankful for Judy Lysy and her willingness to share her heart, soul, and exquisite wisdom. Thanks to her generosity, I take her story with me into the world.