U.S. News

04.29.13

At U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Anniversary, One Survivor’s Quest Continues

The Washington landmark is commemorating its 20th year this weekend with a reunion and remembrance. For one tour guide, her mission to fight intolerance isn’t finished yet.

Never Again is the theme of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 20th anniversary. A two-day tribute begins Sunday for the victims and witnesses of the Nazi slaughter and to the thousands of World War II veterans who will gather on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to reflect on both the past and the future.

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Holocaust survivor and United States National Holocaust Museum guide, Margit Meissner, 90, at the genocide exhibit "From Memory To Action" during a personal tour of the museum with Rwanda genocide survivor and Country Director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Freddy Mutanguha, on August 4, 2012. (Jared Soares for The Washington Post, via Getty)

Bill Clinton, who dedicated the museum two decades ago, is giving the keynote address. Survivor Elie Wiesel, the founding chairman, will present special awards to Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, for his singular leadership of Polish-Jewish relations following the war.

Remembrance is at the core of this unique reunion, along with the mantra “take action and never forget,” underscoring the power of memory to not only inspire, but to comprehend the consequences of hate and indifference—and, most importantly, to effect change.

For Margit Meissner, a Holocaust survivor, original museum donor, and volunteer, the latter is paramount.

“We have to tell the truth, remember the victims, and teach that genocide is preventable,” says the lively, spunky 91 year old, who traveled to Rwanda last year to tell her story and support sister genocide survivors.

“It is very important to face those who did not want to know,” she states as she completes a tour maneuvering through hordes of tourists before settling down in a conference room on the ground floor of the cavernous museum.

Margit’s story is also the title of her autobiography, which she penned as she turned 80. The jacket displays the photo of a hopeful, chubby-cheeked young  woman and details her perilous flight from the Nazis and the twists and turns of a long, unconventional life .

Raised in a sophisticated Jewish family, an integral part of the Prague haute bourgeoisie, her father was a wealthy banker. She grew up in luxury surrounded by staff, including a dressmaker who taught Margit how to make doll clothes. (A skill that would prove crucial to her survival.)

At 16, with violence and anti-Semitism on the rise, Margit’s mother sent her to dressmaking school in Paris—for safety. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, her mother fled to join her, leaving everything behind. After a few months, her mother was ordered to an internment camp. Before she left, she gave Margit a small sum she had saved and said,”It’s up to you to get us out of here.”

As the Germans approached, Margit searched Paris and bought a bike, an almost impossible task, filled a small case with bread, chocolate, a set of underwear, and her dressmaking notes and joined the wave of humanity fleeing south. From other refugees en route, she learned her mother was detained in a camp near the Spanish border. When a bomb blew up the facility, the two miraculously managed to reunite and escape by train to Marseilles.

From there, her story becomes a blur of countries and amazing luck.

The two women crossed the Pyrenees by foot, ending up in a Spanish jail before being rescued by friends.

With the fascists hot on their heels, they managed to sneak into Lisbon, where, penniless, they lived in bordello—“it was a roof over our head,” Margit says. She tapped her dressmaking skills to establish a successful business, with her mother as her assistant.

Eventually, they obtained a visa for the U.S.—along with an affidavit of support from an uncle in New York—and set sail for America. “That’s when my life got exciting,” she recalls. “I had a very checkered career.”

“When people see injustice or prejudice or scapegoating or bullying, they have to intervene. They can’t say it doesn’t matter.”

It was three years from the day Margit had left Prague.

In Manhattan, she went back to dressmaking and met and married a Hungarian Jewish refugee, Otmar Gyorgy, two days after Pear Harbor. (Her mother became a baby nurse for affluent New York families.)

Otmar was in the Army and Margit turned into a camp-follower, moving across the country to an endless stream of training posts. She worked as a credit manager, a cashier, and, because she was fluent in six languages, was a translator for the Office of War Information.

“I became a risk taker,” she reflects, “because I escaped by taking tremendous risks and was successful. I figured I could learn whatever I needed to do.”

At war’s end, Omar was assigned to research the Krupp munitions case at the Nuremberg Trials in Germany and Margit, despite mixed emotions, went along. She wound up working for the U.S. Army of Occupation, reeducating Hitler Youth.

It was a searing experience.

“It very difficult for me to reconcile how I, as a Jew living among Germans who a year ago would have killed me... and now here I am helping them. How does that work? Who am I? What is my identity? I could not figure it out. So I really changed… I became a pacifist, a really anti-war activist because I think that war is the ultimate atrocity.”

She decided to devote her life to reconciliation, not revenge.

Several years later, her marriage crumbled. She moved to California and met and married Frank Meissner, a professor at Berkeley. She taught dressmaking, had two children, and moved to Bethesda, Md., when her husband went to work for the World Bank.

For 20 years, she worked with handicapped children and created an employment program for disabled adults in Montgomery County, which turned into a model for the entire nation. “I was very passionate about that and I accomplished a lot,” she says.

During those years, she came to terms with her identity and describes herself as a promoter of peace, tolerance, good neighborliness and “able to impress young people with the idea they have to become responsible citizens.”

Volunteering at the museum heightened that sense of individuality.

Reluctant to consider herself a survivor because she never endured the horrors of a concentration camp, she quickly learned her wealth of experience and ability to communicate influenced others. “I became a very good tour guide—I have a very special way of explaining how the Holocaust came into being and how it could have been avoided,” she notes.

She will be an active participant in this weekend’s commemoration, delivering her message of action and rapprochement.

“When people see injustice or prejudice or scapegoating or bullying, they have to intervene,” she says. “They can’t say it doesn’t matter. One has to make an effort to create a better world since I am not going to be around forever.”