Lisel Judge, 101, fencer who fled Nazis, led Brandeis women to 16 N.E. titles

Ms. Judge, who was blocked from competing for Germany at the 1936 Summer Olympics, coached fencing at Brandeis University for more than 25 years.
Ms. Judge, who was blocked from competing for Germany at the 1936 Summer Olympics, coached fencing at Brandeis University for more than 25 years.

In the summer of 1936, German native Lisel Judge had her fencing uniform laid out and was ready to compete in the Summer Olympics in Berlin. She was 20 years old.

“There was a knock at the door one day . . . and this Nazi said to me, ‘You don’t have to get dressed. We found out you had a father and a grandmother that were Jewish,’ ” Ms. Judge said in a video interview recorded last year that is posted on YouTube.

Though Hitler had promised the International Olympic Committee that the regime would not use the games as a platform for its ideologies, Ms. Judge was blocked from competing.


By 1938, she and her husband and their infant daughter had to flee Germany for their lives. Ms. Judge started a new life in the Boston area and taught scores of young women at Brandeis University how to grip their foils, outwit opponents, and triumph like 18th-century swordsmen.

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Ms. Judge, who coached fencing at Brandeis for more than 25 years, leading the women’s teams to 16 New England championships, died March 23 in Boca Raton, Fla., a few days after turning 101.

To her team members and family, Ms. Judge was a decisive, indomitable woman with a passion for living that carried her through disappointment and tragedy. Her second daughter was only 5 when she became ill and suddenly died following a family meal at a Boston restaurant.

Ms. Judge divorced twice and was widowed twice. She was in her 80s when she married retired conductor Henry Aaron in 1997. She had started playing the cello when she was in her 40s and met him through their mutual love of classical music. They spent summers in Chautauqua, N.Y., and lived in Boca Raton. He died in 2000.

Earlier in her life, her marriages to Peter Oppenheim and John Judge ended in divorce. Her third husband, dentist Rudolph Hecht, died in 1977, at age 71.


“She lived it to the fullest. She was smart. She was opinionated and she was wise. She lived life with no regrets,” said her granddaughter Laura Walsh, who attempted to learn fencing under her grandmother’s tutelage along with the other grandchildren – though none excelled, she said.

In addition to the New England championships, Ms. Judge’s Brandeis teams logged a career record in dual matches of 169-9 and participated in three pre-NCAA national championship events, according to the university athletic department.

In the early 1970s, she coached Arell Schurgin Shapiro, who was Brandeis’s first women’s fencing All-American. Ms. Judge retired in 1981, and was inducted into the Joseph M. Linsey Brandeis Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996.

“You have to be ahead of every move. You have to expect that move and condition yourself for what’s coming and then do it,” Ms. Judge told the Sun Sentinel in an interview recorded last year at her retirement home in Boca Raton.

Born Lisel Koch in 1916 in Offenbach, Germany, Ms. Judge was the second daughter of Alfred Koch and the former Elisabeth Wittenburg.


She said she was first introduced to fencing in gym class at age 8 and became a devoted competitor by age 12.

In the video interview on YouTube, she said that to that day she “could cry” each time she watches the Olympics on television. Ms. Judge added that she thought: “I should be there.”

In 1936, amid threats in some countries to boycott the Summer Olympics, the Nazi regime placed one qualified Jewish athlete on its team: Helene Mayer, whose father was Jewish and whose mother was Christian. A talented fencer who was blonde and blue-eyed, Mayer won a silver medal in the women’s individual foil.

When Hitler’s pogroms against Jews escalated, Ms. Judge left Germany clutching her infant daughter, Barbara, and fleeing on a train along with her first husband, Peter Oppenheim. The train stopped suddenly in the countryside and an announcement was made instructing all Jewish people to disembark. Ms. Judge recalled that she handed over a gold bracelet to a Nazi guard to let the family stay on the train.

“When I can’t sleep, I sometimes lie awake and wonder what would happen if we had not left Germany,” she told the Sun Sentinel in 2012.

After journeying through the Netherlands and London, she and her family took a ship to New York, and in 1939 they joined a community of German Jews who settled in the Washington Square neighborhood of Brookline, according to her family.

Ms. Judge began teaching fencing in private schools and at the YMCA while competing as captain of the Boston Sword Club. In January 1940, the Globe reported that she won six bouts and lost one during the team’s victory over the Women’s Fencing Club of Springfield. Brandeis offered her a coaching job in 1955.

Fencing appeared to have “a special appeal to the intellectually oriented Brandeis student,” she said in an interview for Abram Leon Sachar’s book “Brandeis University: A Host at Last.”

She added: “It is a sport of skill and dexterity, demanding the keenest of intellectual acumen for those who master its techniques.”

The family planned private services for Ms. Judge, who in addition to her granddaughter Laura leaves her daughter, Barbara Walsh of Billerica; her son, Philip Oppenheim of Las Vegas; five other grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

“She seemed always to have the perfect comeback or quip,” former Brandeis fencer Eileen Carton Samberg, who graduated in 1972, said of Mrs. Judge.

Samberg recalled having great conversations with her coach during the team’s long drives to compete in championships in Buffalo and at Penn State University. She last saw Ms. Judge at a family lunch celebrating the coach’s 90th birthday.

To her fencers, Ms. Judge was just as much friend as coach. She nurtured women’s fencing at Brandeis long before Title IX was enacted in 1972, prohibiting gender discrimination in schools.

Sally Pechinsky Ballinger, who is a fencing coach at the Boston Fencing Club, said Ms. Judge cut a regal figure during bouts in the 1960s.

“She was this tall, striking woman dressed all in black. And of course she had this beautiful accent,” Pechinsky Ballinger recalled. “I was a kid and I was very impressed by her. She was fascinating.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at