I first remember how she carefully looked me up and down and then extended her hand and said with a sparkling smile, “Hello, I am Judy”.
The moment that Judy took to carefully examine me before extending her hand may have been an instinct that was well developed due to her dramatic escape from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
In 1938 Judy had returned home from school in Meissen, Germany, a city in eastern Germany near Dresden, only to be told by neighbours that her parents and sister had been arrested and that she must now leave as quickly as possible or the Gestapo would return for her as well.
She swiftly packed a small suitcase and collected some money and made her way to a nearby synagogue. There she learned that she should immediately go to Leipzig where a Kindertransport train would soon be departing.
Judy’s life before the war was a happy one with her father managing a small factory and Judy excelling in school. However, as the Second World War loomed, she found she was ostracised by the other children at school and one of her teachers even brought in a poster to show the pupils how to recognise a Jew.
Despite being a top student, Judy was not allowed to receive the first-place award in her class. One day, in yellow paint, the words “Here sits a dirty Jewish girl” were scrawled upon her desk top.
Within the chaos of this time, there was one small glimmer of hope. The Kinderstransport programme was responsible for rescuing thousands of children shortly before the war broke out by transporting them to the United Kingdom for safeguarding. Judy, at the age of 17, was actually too old to qualify for this programme. However, she used her clever and creative brain to escape.
When she arrived upon the train platform in Leipzig, she found a cacophony of noise, shouts, cries for help from hundreds of children boarding the train.
A mother quickly pushed her young daughter into Judy’s arms and asked her to provide care. Judy immediately went to a local costume shop and purchased a nurse’s uniform and returned to the train. She told the officials that she was the nurse of the child who had been placed in her arms and therefore she must travel with her. A few minutes later, the train pulled out of the station and Judy and the other young people were making their way to the United Kingdom.
According to records from World Jewish Relief, upon arrival in Liverpool Judy was immediately sent to an agricultural training centre, perhaps to prove that she was in training to be able to go to Palestine and therefore only needed temporary refuge in Britain.
Because Judy had arrived without a personal guarantor – a host family or organisation – this would be the only way she could remain. Whilst studying at the agricultural college she met her future husband and they began their lives in England.
During the war years, Judy was able to find work sewing uniforms for soldiers. Years later, she would use her sewing skills to sew blankets and other items for poor Jewish communities in Europe.
She said that it was difficult being both German and Jewish because the English did not trust the Germans and did not believe her when she said that her parents had been sent to a concentration camp. According to Judy, “they thought I was spreading propoganda”. She later discovered that her parents had tragically perished in Auschwitz along with millions of other Jews.
Judy and her husband worked at various jobs just to survive during and following the war years. She gave birth to two children, David and Ruth, and continued to do whatever she could to aid European Jewry.
“I have been invited three different times to Meissen and the last time the mayor asked me if I still hated them?” she once said. She carefully chose her words in responding to the mayor’s question when she firmly said ”No. Hatred is an illness, it is not worth holding on to. All I ask is that it never happens again.”
Sadly, shortly after her 100th birthday, Judy died. Surprisingly to me, despite my great sadness over the deep sense of loss of my friend, I am smiling as I write this tribute.
My smile is motivated by my having witnessed the ability of one human being to use her brain, her creativity, her compassion for others and her hard work to prove that good may indeed triumph over evil.
It is written in the Book of Proverbs 31 that “a woman of valour who can find? For her price is far above rubies”. And so it is with my friend Judy Benton whose life is a priceless inspiration to me, my family, and thousands of others throughout the world. Each time I smile in memory of her remarkable life, I hope someone sees my moment of joyous remembrance and takes some further happiness from me just as I and many others were gifted from the truly irrepressible, and now immortal, Judy Benton.
Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh