Holocaust Survivors Reflect on Genocide in our Time
Reflection and discussion moderated by Levine Institute for Holocaust Education Director Michael J. Abramowitz. Featuring Margit Meissner and Al Munzer.
Mike Abramowitz directs the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education, which oversees the Museum’s public education through exhibitions, educational and training programs, the development of resources, and digital outreach. Prior to that, he directed the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which educates the public and policymakers about threats of genocide and related crimes against humanity and seeks international action to prevent these crimes from occurring.
Before coming to the Museum in 2009, Abramowitz worked as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post since 1985. Among the subjects he covered were local and national politics, foreign policy, healthcare, and business. Between 2006 and 2009, Abramowitz was White House correspondent for the Post. He also served as the National Editor of the Post between 2000 and 2006.
Margit Meissner, born in Austria in l922, was raised in Prague, Czechoslovakia in a very assimilated, well-to-do Jewish family, the youngest of four children. In l938, when Margit was 16 the Germans annexed Austria. Her mother decided to send Margit to Paris to be out of harm’s way, and found a French family that took her in as a boarder. Assuming that her family would lose all their assets, just like the Jews in Germany, Margit went to a dressmaking school to be able to earn a living wherever she might land. Margit enjoyed the French family and perfected her French.
When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Margit’s mother was able to join Margit in Paris, taking along one small suitcase, the extent of their assets. They became paupers overnight. After World War II started in September 1939 Margit and her mother became enemy aliens, an extremely unpleasant position vis a vis the French authorities.
As France was being overrun by the Nazis, Margit’s mother was arrested and sent to a French concentration camp. The French were afraid of spies. The day before the Nazis entered Paris, Margit fled on a bicycle, together with chaotic hordes of Frenchmen. She found her mother - by miracle- and was able to continue fleeing with her. Although they had a valid Spanish visa to leave France, the French refused them an exit permit. Eventually, Margit and her mother walked across the Pyrenees, the French Spanish border --on foot-- got caught by the Spanish police and put into a Spanish jail because they had crossed the border at an illegal crossing point. With luck and with the help of many good people, they were able to get out and reach neutral Portugal where Margit started a dressmaking business. There, they received a US immigration visa. Exactly three years after Margit had left her home in Prague, she and her mother arrived in the US in April l941 on a Portuguese cork freighter.
Margit got married, spent time in Germany, Hungary and Egypt with her American diplomat husband, before divorcing him. She had many different jobs, eventually owned a children’s dress business in San Francisco where she married Frank Meissner, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia. They had two children, Paul and Anne. Paul is now a hospital administrator in the Bronx and Anne a potter in Silver Spring, not far from where Margit now lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Margit spent 20 years in the Montgomery County, Maryland school system, working on the integration of handicapped children into the general education system. She became a devoted advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. When she retired at age 70, she started studying conflict management, hoping to create a more peaceful environment in schools. She got sidetracked when, at age 80, upon the insistence of her children, she started working on an autobiography so that her children and nieces and nephews would know more about their origins. When the book, “Margit’s Story” was published, a friend suggested she become a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and talk about her life.
She has been at the Museum now for 10 years, as a guide in all three exhibits, a speaker in the speaker’s bureau and a translator in the Archives, mainly from Czech into English. Two year ago, she went with the Museum to Rwanda to attend the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide where she made many meaningful contacts with survivors, their children and grandchildren. She is presently also involved with the refugee crisis in Syria and has spoken on the Holocaust survivors’ reaction to the plight of people who are persecuted by their own governments because of their ethnicity, just like the Jews in Germany. She is very upset that the world is not learning how to settle conflicts without violence.
Dr. Alfred Munzer is a recently retired physician who was Director of Pulmonary Medicine at Washington Adventist Hospital and who served as President of the American Lung Association. In 2000 he was awarded the Will Ross Medal, the highest honor given by the association for volunteer service at the national level. He currently chairs the Board of Trustees of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and remains intimately involved in the global implementation of the first treaty developed under the auspices of the World Health Association, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
Dr. Munzer was born in the Netherlands during WWII and lost many members of his family in the Holocaust. He spent the first four years of his life hidden from the Nazi occupiers with an Indonesian family in The Hague. He and his mother came to the United States in 1958. For the past eight years Al has been a volunteer at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum translating diaries from Dutch into English for a five-volume series called Jewish Responses to Persecution and as a docent for the museum’s permanent and special exhibitions. He has told his story of survival through the museum’s First Person series and to groups of judges, law enforcement officers and high school and college students. But two years ago he had the especially moving experience of sharing the story of his rescue by an Indonesian family with a group of Indonesian students at Temple University. At their invitation, Al went to Indonesia to bring the story of courage and compassion in a time of hate to a wider audience. That same year Al was paired with a Cambodian child survivor of the Khmer Rouge, Arn Chorn Pond, at a Holocaust Commemoration in Scotland. Arn and Al bonded through their common stories of survival and have become close friends and allies in the fight against hate. Al was recently invited to join the Board of Cambodian Living Arts, an organization founded by Arn and dedicated to bring healing and reconciliation to Cambodia through the arts.