Ilsa Loeb had been in some pretty tight spots in her life — literally hiding from the Nazis in wartime Holland in a narrow hole busted in a wall. She knew what it was like to be a prisoner of sorts.
The young toughs at the Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center in North Brunswick, N.J., — some of them in jail on murder charges — could relate. In the frail 87-year-old Loeb, all of 5-feet-2, they saw a profile in courage, and someone who, like them, didn’t have the luxury of always living freely.
Loeb’s recent talk to the 20 young male inmates marked a new chapter for a Holocaust survivor who has made it her mission over the last decade to tell her story of survival and spread her message of hope to as many young school-age children as possible.
But when a recovered drug addict told her about speaking in jails, she decided to take her story to inmates.
“I have a drawer of letters from students who said my story changed their lives, that they appreciate their parents more,” said Loeb, a widow from Monroe Township, N.J. “I felt that if I could do that for those kids, maybe I could help kids who really have a bad life. It’s not always their fault that they are in this situation — often there is no mother or father. I would like to give them hope that it is possible to change their lives.”
After several attempts to make the right connections, Loeb said she was finally invited to speak at the Middlesex County facility.
“I’m used to speaking in tough schools,” said Loeb. “When I first started speaking in schools in New Brunswick 10 years ago, I was a little scared with all the tall kids. I was afraid that if I said something they didn’t like, one of them might come up and push me or something.”
But there were never any incidents there or in other schools in which she spoke. And thus when Loeb entered the detention center, she said she “didn’t feel so nervous. I figured they were going to be well supervised, and I was so used to doing it.”
She made her presentation to 20 young men under the age of 18. They were all in the detention center’s honors unit, which is for those who have gone at least 20 days without an in-house violation. All wore light gray uniforms. As she spoke to them, a corrections officer stood guard at the door.
“They acted like angels,” Loeb said. “But I wasn’t fooled. I knew they wouldn’t be there if they had not done something terrible.”
The center is a holding facility for young men awaiting sentencing on a variety of crimes, including murder. Others are waiting to be moved to another facility or for their cases to be thrown out, according to David Chippendale, the head of investigations.
Loeb’s message to the young inmates: have hope.
“I told them that in life things happen to you,” she recalled. “Sometimes you make bad decisions. Sometimes you make good decisions and yet bad things happen to you that you had no control over. Some people get sick, others don’t. Something terrible happened to me without my doing anything to cause it.”
Loeb went on to tell the youngsters of her ordeal during the Holocaust.
“When I was 13, I said goodbye to my parents in Vienna in 1938 — just days after Kristallnacht,” she said.
Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, refers to coordinated attacks against Jews and their property throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938.
“They were targeting young men, so my parents hid my 20-year-old brother, Felix, in a dark alley,” Loeb said. “They saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to send me to Holland, which was free in 1938. I had a cousin in the Netherlands, so my parents sent him a telegram to say I was coming.”
Despite a passport scare on the train to the Netherlands, Loeb arrived safely, and her cousin located foster parents who agreed to care for her. But on May 10, 1940, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands. Soon thereafter, a Dutch policeman who was escorting members of the Gestapo around town tipped off the family that the Gestapo was looking for Jews.
“I had just 15 seconds to get into the hole in the wall we had prepared just in case,” Loeb recalled.
When the Gestapo didn’t find her, she was quickly moved to another foster family for fear the Gestapo would return for a surprise inspection.
She had to flee again in June 1942, and spent the rest of the war using a fake name and false papers, pretending to be the maid of her cousin’s non-Jewish fiancé.
“I was in hiding for three years, never going out of the house,” she said. “You don’t know what it is to be all alone. In the concentration camps, Jews always had others to talk to. But I was all alone with no one my age to talk to.”
After the war, she learned that her parents had been taken in June 1942 to the Izbica ghetto, a transit point from which they were later placed in cattle cars and taken to their deaths in the Belzek extermination camp.
After the war, Loeb married and had four children (and seven grandchildren) to whom she told of her wartime experiences. She said she has shared her experiences hundreds of times to different groups, including on TV.
After telling her story at the New Jersey detention center, Loeb took questions and then asked the inmates to do something for her.
“You have to become a witness,” she told them. “When we survivors are not around anymore and people say the Holocaust never happened, you have to make sure you speak up for us.”
Chippendale said Loeb held the young inmates spellbound.
“She was looking to do a 45-minute presentation, and she stayed an hour and a half,” he said. “The kids asked a lot of questions. They didn’t know much about the subject, but they related to the fact that she was imprisoned herself — these guys understood that they can’t go anyplace either.”
Beth Lilach, senior director of education and community affairs at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove, L.I., said she had heard of only one other survivor who has spoken to inmates.
“One of the reasons their stories are so powerful is that these kids can see that whatever happened in the past can be overcome,” she said. “Survivors are great examples of how one can change his life and become a contributing member of society.”
The inmates later sent Loeb a poster on which they wrote individual messages. One read: “Your story was very courageous and inspirational to me and my peers. It will help me to always keep hope in the future. God bless you and keep hope.”
Chippendale pointed out that Loeb had spoken with “some very tough individuals.”
“Most of my kids don’t care about anybody but themselves,” he said, “but she was able to touch some of their souls.”