Judith Magyar Isaacson G’67

Judith Magyar Isaacson G’67, Overseer Emerita, died on November 10, 2015, in Auburn, Maine.

(The following appeared in The Portland Press Herald Nov. 11-12, 2015):

AUBURN – Judith Magyar Isaacson, Holocaust survivor, advocate for women’s education, teacher and memoirist, died on Nov. 10, at the age of 90.

Judith was born in Kaposvar, Hungary in 1925. Her extraordinary voyage took her from this small provincial city in southeastern Hungary, to concentration camps in Poland and Germany, to Auburn, where she lived with her husband, Irving Isaacson for 70 years.

An eager student and valedictorian of her high school class, Judith planned to write poetry and study at the Sorbonne until her dreams were crushed by the Nazi occupation.

In June 1944 she was transported to Auschwitz, the notorious annihilation camp. Herded into a selection line for the gas chambers with her mother, Rose, and her aunt Magda, Jutka defied the infamous Dr. Mengele, risking death so they could stay together.
Thanks to her optimism, judgment, and fluent German, Judith made a number of other bold decisions that, along with extraordinary luck, allowed all three women to survive, even as they went on to endure horrific conditions as slave laborers in an underground munitions factory in Hessisch Lichtenau, Germany.

After being liberated by American troops in 1945, they were waiting to be transported back to Hungary when Judith met Irving Isaacson, an intelligence officer in the OSS, the WWII-era predecessor to the CIA. He fell in love with her on the spot. They were married at the Nuremberg city hall on December 24, 1945. Shortly after, Ike brought Judith, her mother and aunt to America.

In 1960, when their third child went to kindergarten, Judith began to watch mathematics lessons broadcast on PBS. Her distance learning led her to Bates College, where she received a B.A. in mathematics in 1965, the same year her daughter graduated from high school.

Judith taught mathematics at Lewiston High School and then, at Bates College, where she became the first computer science teacher. In 1969 she earned a Masters in Mathematics, one of the very first women to earn a Bowdoin degree. In 1975, the Bates College president asked her to apply for a position as Dean of Women. One skeptical member of the hiring committee asked her whether she’d ever lived in a dormitory. “Yes,” she said, “at Auschwitz.” She got the job. In 1975 she became Bates’ first Dean of Students. As dean, Isaacson fought fearlessly for women students’ right to a fully equal education. The college later recognized her efforts on behalf of women when awarding her an honorary degree.

Many Holocaust survivors bury the past, but Judith shared her experiences with her young children, their friends, classmates, and youth groups. Compelled to bear witness in the hope that history would not repeat the horrors she experienced, she began speaking to schools and community groups throughout Maine. On one such occasion, a Bowdoin student asked, “Dean Isaacson, after all you’ve been through, how can you smile so freely, so often?” To answer this question she decided to write her memoirs. Returning to her hometown to research her book, thirty-three years after being shipped out in a cattle car, she sat next to a man who confessed that he had been a conductor on the trains that transported Jews to concentration camps. He asked if she could forgive him. She said, “It’s not for me to forgive you. You have to forgive yourself.”

Written in English, her fifth language, Seed of Sarah has been hailed as a triumph of elegant, restrained prose and powerful storytelling. The book’s happy ending, Judith’s marriage to “my American Captain,” combined with her ability to stare down evil and survive with her idealism and generosity of spirit intact, has made Seed of Sarah a classic of Holocaust literature that is widely taught in schools and colleges. In 1987 the city of Hessisch Lichtenau, where she did forced labor in a munitions factory three decades earlier, invited her and her former comrades to witness the dedication a monument to victims of the Holocaust, and by commemorating the past to promote the reconciliation of the German and Jewish people.

Having faced starvation and death at the age of 19, Judith cherished life—cooking exquisite Hungarian pastries, reading voraciously, playing with her grandchildren, swimming, kayaking, running, and gardening.

Isaacson served as a member of the Bowdoin College Board of Overseers from 1984-1996. She also sat on the boards of the Auburn Public Library, Central Maine Medical Center, and the medical center’s School of Nursing and Health Professions. Colby College and the University of New England also awarded her honorary degrees that recognized her accomplishments as an educator and Holocaust writer and highlighted her extraordinary optimism and capacity for forgiveness even after suffering profound loss and unspeakable horror.

Her other honors include the University of New England’s Deborah Morton Award for outstanding women, the Hargraves Preservation of Freedom Prize at Bowdoin College, and the University of Southern Maine’s Maryann Hartman Award for distinguished Maine women. In 2004 she was inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame, and this past summer she received the Maine Healthcare Association’s Remember Me award.

She is survived by her husband, Irving Isaacson; her three children, John Isaacson, Ilona Bell and Mark Isaacson, their spouses, Consuelo Isaacson, Robert Bell, and Karen Herold; her grandchildren Peter Isaacson, Tess Goode, Anna Isaacson and Noah Isaacson, Kaitlin Barnett and Amanda Bell, Max Isaacson and Morgan Faust. Her great desire for great-grandchildren was fulfilled this summer: the sight of baby Nora and the expectation of baby Jack brightened her beautiful, smiling face.

The Nazis sought to exterminate all the seed of Sarah. Judith’s seed lives on.