My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.
I first met longtime Bethesda resident Margit Meissner back in the early 1980’s when we both worked for Montgomery County Public Schools. And even though we departed MCPS employment years ago, we’ve remained friends, mostly as board members of TransCen , a local nonprofit helping disabled adults find employment. Margit was instrumental in establishing the group.
It always was apparent to me that Margit was not born in the U.S. She speaks with a slight accent. But it was much later in our friendship, when she shared her autobiography “Margit’s Story,” that I learned she is a Holocaust survivor. What a fascinating life.
And at age 92, Margit continues to amaze. Last summer, after taking a tour of the Holocaust Museum with Margit as the guide, I knew I would eventually chat with her and share this absolutely beautiful human with BethesdaNow readers.
Joe Hawkins: You retired years ago from MCPS. Instead of living out your retirement relaxing and traveling the world, you took on a rather demanding volunteer position at the Holocaust Museum. Why?
Margit Meissner: True I retired from MCPS in 1992, at age 70. I had no intention then to become involved with the Holocaust Museum. I was interested in learning more about conflict resolution with the goal of making classrooms more peaceful.
I took courses at George Mason University in Conflict Management and volunteered at the Mental Health Association. There, I helped create a program called Voices vs. Violence. At the time, my children kept badgering me that I had to write the story of my escape from Europe and my European family background.
Eventually, at age 80, I started to write my autobiography “Margit’s Story,” a book strictly for my family, I thought. But others thought that the book revealed a generally interesting story of Holocaust survival and urged me to become a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. That is the circuitous way I became a translator, docent and speaker at the Museum. When I started to volunteer there and realized the impact I had as a survivor story teller, I became energized to do as much as possible, aware that I and other survivors would not be around forever.
Hawkins: Recently, for the Holocaust Museum, you traveled to Rwanda for the nation’s re-examination of its own genocide. What was that about and what did you learn?
Meissner: In April, the Museum invited me to be part of an official delegation to attend the 20th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda. I was very pleased to be able to return to Rwanda, where I had been two years earlier, on my own, with a group of donors to Women for Women International (WfWI), an organization that I support.
WfWI ‘s goal is to improve the lives of women victims of war. I also knew quite a bit about Rwanda, having gone through the training to become a guide in the Museum’s exhibit, “From Memory to Action.” After viewing the exhibit, the viewer understands that genocides do not have to happen if world powers take notice. So being there for the 20th commemoration had very special meaning for me. Rwanda is a traumatized country; there is not a single family in which there weren’t either victims or perpetrators.
It was a mass killing action where close to a million Tutsi were hacked to death by their neighbor Hutus in three short months. The killing could be seen on our TV screens but the United Nations in New York ordered its peacekeepers in Rwanda to stay out of the fray. The U.S. government, conscious of its recent Somalia debacle, decided to ignore the situation.
We witnessed the commemoration activities as guests of the Rwandan president, who is accused by the Western press of being a strong-armed autocrat. It was a most moving spectacle with thousands of participants in a huge outdoors soccer stadium, with occasional audience members screaming in acute pain at the memory of their loved ones being butchered. The activities continued without pause as these disconsolate women were carried out of the stadium. But they were noticed by everyone.
Personally, I thought that the country was making progress: construction everywhere, all the children go to school and the perpetrators who are in prison are being released gradually, with transition programs and activities, to integrate them into their communities where they have to live close to the victims.
Hawkins: Over the years, you have done lots of guided tours of the Holocaust Museum. Would you mind sharing a few touching observations from visitors that absolutely surprised you?
Meissner: One comment that really influences my present life came from a young man, probably a sixth or seventh grader. At the end of my talk, he turned to me and asked: “Mrs. Meissner, what do you really regret in your life?”
I was taken aback by that question, as you can imagine. I had to think quickly. The first thing that came to mind was my regret of never having learned Russian properly, although I tried several times. So now I am taking Russian lessons again that I enjoy greatly. I am always pleased when young people tell me that they will remember my story and that they will not be bystanders when they see persecution, scapegoating or discrimination in their environments. It is one of my major goals to transmit that concept to my audiences.
Hawkins: You’re in your early 90’s and still in great health. Are you planning to retire again?
Meissner: Am I planning to retire again? What a question. I expect to continue talking at the Museum as long as my health permits me. I hope to continue traveling, either to new places, like India, or to revisit previously visited places that have changed unrecognizably. During my lifetime, the changes in the world are simply remarkable. I feel grateful that I am witnessing this transformation.
Hawkins: This may be too personal a question, but I’ll ask it. Eventually with time, we reach a place where there are no Holocaust survivors. In your opinion, how does the story of the Holocaust change? Or does it change at all?
Meissner: I hope that museums that depend on survivors to tell their stories make sure that they have oral histories available for schools or other interested entities.
We are reaching this stage quickly. The Holocaust story does change over time. As younger people do not have any memory of the Holocaust, it is necessary to make the information accessible to them in ways in which they are accustomed to learn. That includes all the ever-expanding electronic media: texting, linkages to other sources, etc.
Occasionally, I worry that some of my listeners regard the Holocaust as removed as I regard the Punic wars (between Rome and Carthage, 3rd century B.C.). I wonder what stunts are needed to overcome that apathy. I have no ready answers. I do hope, however, that the Holocaust will never be forgotten and that it will be remembered as the greatest organized mass murderof the 20th century.
Photos via Margit Meissner
Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.