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.