Overseer Emerita Judith Magyar Isaacson, an author, educator and Holocaust survivor, died Tuesday at the age of 90.
President Rose shared news of her passing and details of a life that took her from Hungary and labor camps, to Maine and a long and storied career shaping young minds.
Judith was born on July 3, 1925, in Kaposvár, Hungary, and was educated at the Gimnazium with dreams of studying poetry at the Sorbonne. She was a model student whose top grades and high praise from teachers seemed to offer her the world. But by the mid-1940s, Hitler’s influence was entrenched in European society; college was wrenched out of reach when her family was relegated to a Jewish ghetto in May 1944. Her father and uncles were drafted into forced labor, and on July 2, 1944, one day before her nineteenth birthday, Judith and the women of her family were taken by cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where an aunt and grandmother were immediately sent to the gas chamber.
Judith, her young Aunt Magda and her mother, Rose (Rózsi), survived that horror only to be taken to Hessisch Lichtenau, a Buchenwald satellite camp, where they endured nine months of slave labor in a dynamite factory. At the war’s end, they were liberated by American troops, one of whom was Irving Isaacson, an OSS officer and Maine lawyer who would become her husband. Judith, her aunt, and her mother emigrated to Maine in 1945.
For years, Judith buried her past while focusing on building a life and a future, her positive outlook and radiant smile belying all she had endured. She raised three children and graduated from Bates College in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics here at Bowdoin in 1967 and pursued doctoral studies at the University of New Hampshire.
Judith began her professional career as a math teacher at Lewiston High School, where she chaired the Department of Mathematics. In 1968, she was appointed lecturer in mathematics and computer science at Bates, beginning a long and prestigious tenure there. She was appointed dean of women the following year, and she went on to become dean of students and associate dean of the college. She was a tireless champion of women’s rights at Bates during the 1970s and was instrumental in ending discriminatory practices, such as the unequal codes of conduct for men and women on campus. In 1975, she became the first woman to join the selection committee for the Maine Little League Award program.
In 1976, she was invited to speak at Bowdoin following a showing of the Holocaust documentary film, Night and Fog. One student asked her how she could smile after everything she had been through, and she could not provide an answer. She told the young man she would have to think about it, and that night, she dreamed of Lichtenau. The next day, she began writing her acclaimed book, Seed of Sarah: Memoir of a Survivor.
Once she started relating her wartime experiences, it was as if she couldn’t stop. She gave hundreds of talks to all kinds of gatherings, but she was most drawn to schoolchildren. She believed it was her responsibility to not only bear witness herself to the horrors she had seen, but to educate future generations of “witnesses” who could combat the rising scourge of Holocaust deniers. She even traveled to Germany, where her book was translated into German.
In 1991, Seed of Sarah made the prestigious New York Public Library’s list of “Books for the Teen Age,” and a chamber opera of the same name by composer Mark Polishook premiered in 1995 and was later made into a movie, which included passages that Judith recorded for the soundtrack.
Judith served as a Bowdoin Overseer from 1984 to 1996, and in 1996 she received the College’s Gordon S. Hargraves Preservation of Freedom Prize. The Honors Committee of the Governing Boards noted that her “life has revealed the human spirit at its very finest.”
She was awarded honorary degrees by Bates and Colby colleges and by the University of New England. In 1993, she received the Deborah Morton Award at Westbrook College, and the Kennebec Council of the Girl Scouts honored her at its Women of Distinction dinner in 2003. The following year she was inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame.
Judith was a major supporter of the Holocaust Human Rights Center of Maine, and served on the World Affairs Council of Maine and the University of Southern Maine Council of Visitors. She was a trustee of Central Maine Medical Center and Kents Hill School, and she was the first woman incorporator of the Mid Maine Mutual Savings Bank.
Judith will be missed by her husband, Irving Isaacson; their three children, John Magyar Isaacson, Ilona Dorothy Bell, and Mark Lewis Isaacson and their spouses; eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. She was predeceased by her father, Jeno Magyar, who died in a Nazi forced labor camp, and her mother, Rose (Rózsi) Magyar, who lived well into her 90s.
A memorial service for Judith will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Friday, November 13, at Temple Shalom (74 Bradman St, Auburn, ME).
The answer to that vexing question asked by the student at Bowdoin so many years ago may be best answered by Judith’s favorite lines of verse by the Hungarian poet Endre Ady:
Life is a gift, sacred and choice
All who live
I regret that I never had the chance to meet this truly remarkable woman and to thank her for her service to our College and to humankind.