Surviving the Holocaust

Judy Jacobs to receive Defying the Odds Alumni Award

At 78 years of age, Judy Jacobs (MBA ’77, Ph.D. ’86) still has vivid memories of childhood.

The memories are far from pleasant.

It was a childhood of fear, filled with memories of hunger – constant hunger. At just seven years old, Jacobs and her family sought asylum from Budapest, Hungary, to a safe, neutral zone in Switzerland. However, the Nazis turned what was supposed to be a rescue operation into an opportunity to capture and hold them for ransom. The Nazis took the first installment of ransom money, but didn’t deliver the people to Switzerland. Instead, the Nazis transported them by train to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

“I lived in constant fear — fear of Nazi terror, fear of being separated from my parents and fear of the unknown,” Jacobs said. Jacobs said she never really had the opportunity to live as a child. She still has distinct memories of the train ride to Bergen-Belsen and to this day, she hates trains.

“They remind me of the overcrowded, filthy cattle cars in which we rode to Bergen-Belsen.”

Desperate for money near the end of the war, Jacobs said the Nazis released them to Switzerland. “We were ransomed out of Bergen-Belsen,” Jacobs said.  “We realized we had been freed as we heard the church bells of St. Gallen, Switzerland.”

After liberation, Jacobs’ father quickly learned he needed to sharpen his medical skills to earn a living for his family. A Swiss colleague invited him to collaborate on a radiology paper, which included an independent living permit. But they needed money to live. In 1945, refugees were granted work permits only for menial jobs, but her mother was flexible enough to accept a job peeling vegetables that included a stipend for a furnished room for two. That worked for Jacobs’ mother and father, but there were three people in the family.

So Jacobs was sent to boarding school, where she and the other students were housed in hotels left vacant because of the war. A charitable organization covered her expenses.

“Being separated from my parents was very challenging,” Jacobs said. “On the positive side, I learned to speak German and became self-reliant at the age of eight.”

Despite her harrowing beginning, Jacobs went on to build a life and career that included two degrees from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In recognition of her indomitable will to survive and achieve, she is the 2016 recipient of the Defying the Odds Alumni Award.

Each year, the UMKC Alumni Association recognizes 16 alumni and one family with top honors. UMKC will honor Jacobs and other outstanding alumni at the 2016 Alumni Awards Luncheon April 21 at Swinney Recreation Center. The luncheon is one of the university’s largest events and proceeds support student scholarships. Last year’s luncheon attracted nearly 600 attendees and garnered more than $141,000 in student scholarships.

As time passed, the Jacobs family was presented with the opportunity to move to the United States under the sponsorship of an uncle in Virginia. They made the move with only one suitcase each.

“Soon after our arrival my dad began a radiology fellowship in Boston,” Jacobs said. They were poor, but safe. As her father’s career progressed, they moved to Washington, where her father resumed his medical practice and became a well-respected radiologist. Although they lived a good, middle-class life, the cultural divide remained.

She enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she met her husband, David, during her freshman year. They married two years later. She began college as a premed student, but switched to education because it fit better with her hectic life.

With family in tow, Jacobs and her husband moved to Kansas City.

Her original goal was to earn a master’s and doctorate degree in economics. But with a good part-time job with Pathologists, Chartered, a professional corporation where she was business manager, Jacobs decided on an MBA in finance and later a Ph.D. in higher education.

“I chose my career field; but not the career itself, which actually chose me,” Jacobs said.

Her choice in attending UMKC was equally opportune. The campus was less than a 10-minute drive from her home, making it a convenient and logical choice with four children. “I was very pleased with the educational opportunities UMKC provided, and I happily stayed on for the Ph.D. program.”

“UMKC took a chance on me, a 36-year-old student with an undistinguished undergraduate record,” Jacobs said. “UMKC accepted me where I was, and allowed me to proceed at my own pace. My achievements were, to a large measure, made possible by the flexible, open environment this institution provides. I will forever be grateful.”

Jacobs is driven by the knowledge that in spite of a devastating early life, she has survived and raised a wonderful family. She is now retired but remains an active and frequent Holocaust speaker.

“I am committed to disseminating knowledge about the Holocaust and its lessons,” Jacobs said. “I am part of a diminishing cadre of survivors who are able and willing to share their testimony. I accept as many requests as possible for Holocaust lectures. This is my sacred obligation — a mission. I want to help to prevent recurrences of the horrors I experienced as a child.”

When reflecting upon the honor she will receive at the Alumni Awards Luncheon on April 21, Jacobs said, “I am honored that the UMKC Alumni Association has selected me for the Defying the Odds Award. I urge students following in my footsteps not to fear the seemingly impossible. If you have family obligations and want to enhance your education, don’t give up, just tread slowly. All-consuming family obligations tend to diminish over time, but the benefits of education endure.”

“From a terrified, starving East European little girl, I have become an American and a mid-westerner. I am eternally grateful.”

Click here for tickets or sponsorship information for the April 21, 2016, Alumni Awards Luncheon.

Click here for more information on the 2016 Alumni Awards recipients.

Nominations are now open for the Class of 2017 Alumni Awardees. Click here to nominate fellow alumni who are deserving of the campus’ highest recognition for alumni achievement. Nominations close March 7.

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