Judy Sleed is a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who escaped when Nazi troops invaded Hungary in 1944. She was just 12 years old. Her mother, father, and older brother were all killed. She recently told her story in the documentary “I am Judit,” directed by Christiane Arbesu.
“I met Judy through Michael Clark, the executive director at LTV,” said Arbesu. “It was the first time that Judy really talked about her experience and what it felt like to lose her family. I guess what I wanted to show in the film was how Holocaust survivors have such a profound strength in them. I wanted to show that it’s not about her suffering, but it’s about her living.”
Sleed tells the story of her harrowing childhood, and the painful memories she had never discussed in detail with her own children until the film.
“She was living without any family at the age of 12. That’s why at the beginning I asked her about a time with her family. She’s dancing with her father. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the film when you see the phonograph, and I wanted to show the absurdity of how here you are just having a normal family dinner, and boom, it’s completely changed. Your father’s dead, your brother’s dead, and then two days later, your mother hears something on the radio and goes and reports and ends up getting killed,” said Arbesu.
“I didn’t know what was going on in Europe because my mother shielded me. Anytime there was talk of anything bad she would cover my ears,” said Sleed in the documentary.
Sleed is a longtime resident of East Hampton who has hosted a local talk show “The Play is the Thing” on LTV for the past 20 years. While she loves to share other people’s stories, in the documentary she shares her own.
She also wrote a play about her experience called “Delibab,” named after the street she was living on with a group of children following her escape.
“Another poignant scene for me is when she’s reading from the play to her children,” said Arbesu. “Her mother chose to obey the order and she leaves. I still always get so choked up when her mother says to her, ‘somebody will love you the way I love you. You will be loved.’ Those were the parting words and her mother’s cheeks were wet. And that just always got me.”
There’s also the timeliness to the story as there are fewer Holocaust survivors alive who remember.
“I was watching the news back in 2022 and there was a lot of coverage on the highest incidents of hate crimes against the Jews since World War II. It just kept coming up. Then Michael sends me a text or an email, ‘There’s this woman that wants to have her story told,'” Arbesu recalled. “I wanted to do it. I’m not Jewish. Doesn’t matter. People need to know. Kids in high school don’t know what the Holocaust is. Kids in college don’t know the Holocaust. So I wanted to — I needed to tell that story. I want this documentary to be shown in schools.”
“I feel that it’s important to tell the story so it should stay in history that this did happen,” said Sleed in the film. The film is meant to be a lesson in history, and a lesson to not let history repeat itself.
“I guess it was also my way of trying to understand,” said Arbesu on directing the documentary. “Of course I didn’t come any closer to understanding how this could be done. But what I did understand is that the spirit is so resilient and so strong.”
Sleed’s outlook in the film is uplifting as she tells her story of survival.
“And that’s why I ended it in song,” said Arbesu. “I feel that was the only way to end it. With the song from her play, because that’s who she is. I didn’t wanna get too heavy into her sadness… She’s such a positive, happy person. You love her just from the moment you see her.”
The film is a captivating portrait of Sleed. Four generations of her family — children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren — join her in the documentary, as does Julie Ratner of the Ellen Hermanson Foundation and Sara Blue of Maureen’s Haven, both friends of Sleed’s.
Her goal was to tell her story, and to spread awareness. “If we can just make one person aware of what happened, and one person to just realize that hate is so bad, and we’re all the same, and that love is the strongest force and light, then we’ve done it, we’ve succeeded. That’s all we want,” said Arbesu.
How would Arbesu describe Sleed? “She is just a firecracker.”
One word that Sleed would use to describe herself: “Survivor.”
The film will screen on Saturday, November 11, at 6 PM, at LTV. The screening is free to the public and there is a Q & A with Arbesu and Sleed planned. The evening will also honor Sleed’s 20-plus years producing “The Play is the Thing,” where’s she has done over 100 shows.