Wednesday, October 10, 2018


I usually write about legal issues relating to privacy and data security. The long anticipated new European privacy law known as the GDPR took effect this past May. It was quickly followed by the California Consumer Rights Act, which takes effect in 2020. Earlier this year I wrote about these new protective laws and what they mean for businesses.

For this post, however, I am going to share a personal story that in some ways demonstrates the huge difference between European and American privacy laws and regulations.

On November 21, 1944, my mother, Judy Meisel, was in line with her mother, Mina Beker, as they approached the gas chamber at Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. A Nazi guard pulled my mother from the line just before her mother was ushered into the small and dank brick structure where she was poisoned with Zyklon B gas. We know the exact date Mina was murdered as the Germans kept a detailed record book. You can find the page and see where, on row 4, they recorded my grandmother’s birthdate and hometown. The last column displays the date they ended her life.

The extermination and attempted genocide of Jews was not a German secret. It was a well-organized systematic plan. The collection, storage, and use of personal data was integral in the machinery of death. IBM computers were, in fact, an important part of the effort to facilitate and document this mass murder.  

European data privacy laws are so protective of individual rights in part because of this history of the collection and use of personal information by the Nazis and other autocratic governments for nefarious and untoward reasons. As a result, privacy is now a human right in Europe. You cannot collect, store, and use personal information without express consent of the data subject. In contrast, in the United States, personal information is valued as something to share and monetize so long as you do not violate a federal or state law. Different approach. Different set of rules and regulations.

My mother was 14 when she let go of her mother’s hand for the last time and ran to safety. A documentary about her escape from Stutthof and remarkable story of survival, “Tak for Alt,” has been shown in countless schools around the country and seen by thousands. At 89, she still speaks often about her experiences and does everything she can to keep the memories of Holocaust victims alive.

And now she has a new story to tell.

On June 9, 2017, two German law enforcement agents interviewed my mother for over four hours in her Minnesota apartment. As one of the last remaining survivors of Stutthof, she could provide testimony regarding a Nazi SS guard who was at Stutthof at the same time. This may be one of the last proceedings of this kind; all of the surviving Holocaust victims and perpetrators are in their late 80s and 90s.

“Do you recognize this man?” the German investigator asked, showing my mother a photograph of a young man in a Nazi SS uniform as I looked on.

My mother’s face turned white “Meydele! That is Meydele!” she exclaimed, using the Yiddish word for little girl. “My mother called him that name because of his girlish features. He was the one who watched us get undressed every morning.” Her response was visceral and genuine.

Several months later, the German government issued a 60-page indictment, listing my mother as co-plaintiff. The indictment goes into excruciating detail about the horrific conditions at Stutthof and names the defendant as an accessory to murder.

Last week, we were informed that a trial date of November 6 has been set in Muenster, Germany.

According to the German prosecutor Andreas Brendel, the defendant admits to being at Stutthof but says he was unaware of the killings and did not participate in any. “As a guard he was necessarily informed about these killings," Brendel said. “And it is our contention that the camp was not so large that he couldn’t look around from a watch tower and clearly see what was happening there.” 

So now we may find out how a 17-year-old ended up as a guard at Stutthof. What did he do while he was there? What did he think of my mother and the others he watched over? What has he been doing with the rest of his life? What does he share with his family and friends about what he was doing in 1944?

For our family this trial is not about seeking revenge or putting an old man in jail. We welcome any opportunity to tell the world my mother’s story and the important lessons it imparts about the need to never remain silent in the face of bigotry, racism, prejudice, hatred, and intolerance.

We hope this trial will afford us another such opportunity.

My son Ben, a New York based filmmaker who was present during my mother’s German interview, curates a website about her experiences, and plans on filming the upcoming trial and documenting other aspects of this effort to pursue justice.

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