SLINGERLANDS, N.Y. (NEWS10) — At the age of 18-years old, Hedi McKinley was forced to flee her home in Vienna, Austria for one reason: she was Jewish.

“You’re fleeing for your life, basically she witnessed Kristallnacht, which [the Nazis] destroyed many, many Jewish businesses and synagogues. Basically, the time clock was ticking,” says Claire Lissance, the cousin of Heidi McKinley.

Over 80 years after leaving the world she knew behind, Hedi left this world at the age of 102; carrying with her the trauma and story of her past. A story in which Lissance says ought to be told. “Of course, it [the Holocaust] is getting further and further removed and also Holocaust survivors are dying out, there are not that many left.” 

After fleeing Austria, Hedi traveled alone to London with her parents still in Vienna hiding from the Nazis. Once in London, she made contact with an aunt and uncle who were living in New York City. In 1939, she was bound for the safety of America.

“Eventually, through sheer grit, hardwork and determination, she went to Columbia University. She lived in New York City in Greenwich Village. She made a whole new life for herself and with this whole new life, she became a change agent for others because she studied social work,” explains Lissance.

From 1970 until 1985, Hedi taught at the University at Albany, eventually starting her own private practice in social work. In the 1990s, she began visiting local high schools with the help of the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center to speak out about her experience living under the Nazis and how prejudice led to genocide of the Jewish population in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.

“The message of fighting prejudice and building a better world is the message she shared with others and she realized how important that was,” says Shelly Shapiro, director of the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center in Albany.

“Anyone who lived through this needs to have their story told,” says Lissance, “they need to be interviewed, it needs to be recorded because sooner or later, people won’t be able to anymore.”