The Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, March 10, 2000
New Movies in Weekend: 'Tak For Alt' ('Thanks for Everything' in Danish) receives four stars. The documentary tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who moved to Delaware County and fought intolerance.
Her persecution by the Nazis led to a life of activism and baking. A life-affirming saga of survival and spirit
By Carrie Rickey
Inquirer Movie Critic
When the bigots in Judy Meisel's Folcroft, Delaware County, neighborhood threw rocks at the Bakers, and African-American couple who moved there in 1963, the mother of three took prompt action. Meisel made a batch of cookies and paid the Bakers a social call. "I couldn't believe this was happening in the City of Brotherly Love," recalls Meisel, a Lithuanian refugee, who reflects that baking cookies for the Bakers was her first step toward becoming a civil rights activist.
You probably haven't met Judy Meisel, but once you do in 'TAK FOR ALT' ('Thanks for Everything' in Danish), an extraordinary documentary about her extraordinary life, she will be your heroine. Listening to Meisel, it is as though Anne Frank had miraculouly lived. Meisel's eloquence is every bit as moving as Anne Frank's diaries.
While the race riots in Folcroft were not Meisel's first experience of bigotry, seeing it happen to the Bakers reopened her own psychic wounds.
For the woman who though she had come to the land of Tolerance when she emigrated to America in 1950, speaking up on behalf of the Bakers meant speaking out about her own persecution. If she had kept mum about it, says the 70ish grandmother who has a degree in early childhood education from Temple Universtiy, it would have been because she didn't want to scare her own children. Her story is scaryÑas heart-wrenching as it is life-affirming.
As Meisel shares her memories of the Lithuanian village of Jasvene where she grew up, filmmakers Laura Bialis, Broderick Fox, and Sarah Levy intercut black-and-white footage of preparing challah and the lighting of the sabbath candles. Unobtrusively, the filmmakers illustrate Meisel's recollections of how family and community made her who she was and how the loss of them redoubled her commitment to both.
By retracing Meisel's journey from hometown to concentration camp to eventual liberation, with their sugject as their guide, the filmmakers provide both a geographical and moral tour.
When Meisel recalls how her family was driven from its home in Jasvene to the Jewish ghetto in the city of Kaunas and then to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, baked goods become a metaphor of the human spirit. As challah nourished visitors to sabbath dinner, so five loaves of bread the young Meisel got on the black market in Kaunas in exchange for a diamond ring sustained hungry hearts and hopes.
Meisel's first memories of Stutthof, how the Nazis yanked out her mother's gold teeth and Meisel's own golden hair from its roots, are pretty strong stuff, but not half so strong as the woman who lived to tell. Her mother died in the gas chambers, a fate that Meisel and her sister Rachel narrowly avoided. Of the 50,000 Jews at Stutthof, Judy and Rachel were among a handful who survived. After liberation from the camp, as the war still raged, came their exodus.
The sisters journeyed north, stopping at a convent, where they were given rosaries that helped them pass as Roman Catholics, and to get work from Nazi soldiers who boasted of destroying Kaunas' Jewish ghetto. The sisters managed to get themselves to Denmark, where, thanks to doctors and the love of a Lutheran couple who adopted them, the lice-infested and typhus-stricken teenagers were nursed back to heath. TAK FOR ALT, thanks for everything, is the Danish phrase inscribed on the gravestone of the woman who cared for them.
Such is Meisel's dramatic backstory, which goes far to explain her guts and gallantry in the face of the American race riots. And it also explains why one of her favorite activities with preschoolers is making challah.
If there is a flaw in this chronicle of her life, it is that the audience never learns what becomes of the Bakers. But to Meisel, who dedicated a life to stopping the intolerance endured by the Bakers, and to the filmmakers who lovingly characterize her, we must say, "tak for alt."
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