Monday, March 31, 2008
MODERATOR: So here we are at the closing of this session and it is truly an honor and a privilege for me to introduce our next speaker. She has become a very close friend over the last year or so. Margit Meissner is a volunteer here at the museum who tells us her story of surviving the Holocaust but also links that story with what’s happening today not only in Darfur but also with Congo. And what you’re about to hear, I think, is an amazing story. Margit, as I said, is a survivor of the Holocaust. She’s an author. She was born in Austria to a Jewish family. She was sent to Paris at the age of 16 when Hitler annexed Austria. Due to her father’s connection to the Congo, she was able to leave France and was then miraculously reunited with her mother, with whom she eventually immigrated to the United States. And you’ll hear this story in a second. Margit then married a G.I. and after the war accompanied him to the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Now, a retired school administrator, she is the author of the book that we sell in our bookstore, “Margit’s Story” and a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I introduce you to Margit Meissner.
MARGIT MEISSNER Thank you for this introduction. You almost told my story. I have nothing more to say. I salute all of you who are still here. It’s been a long, long day and I’m sure you feel like I do, that I’ve heard lots and lots of things about the Congo, at least lots of things that I didn’t know. Maybe you knew all this information but I think it was a marvelous day although at times, very upsetting, but overall moving. But that’s at least my reaction to it. But I’ll tell you my story briefly. I don’t know-- do I have to hold this. Can you hear me? What? It’s okay.
So I was really very happy when the Museum’s Committee of Conscience invited me to speak to this conference on the Congo. I had been following the violence in the Congo, what I thought was quite carefully but because I have a personal connection to the Congo, which is 60 years old. So the people who invited me had no idea that I had this personal connection to the Congo. So let me explain. I was an 18-year-old Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia in Marseille in the south of France. I had made my way out of Paris on a bicycle the day before Hitler entered Paris. It was the summer of 1940, 68 years ago. France had just capitulated to the German Reich and my mother and I were desperately trying to leave France, to escape from being engulfed in Hitler’s anti-Semitic violence, but no country was willing to give us asylum.
My mother had been interned in a French concentration camp. Although we were Jewish, we were ex-Austrian citizens and as such we were considered enemy aliens. She was so shocked from her experiences that she withdrew into a shell and I was now the one who had to get us out of there. That’s what she said to me. “You’ve got to get us out of here.” Well, I had no idea how I could get us out of here. So I tried one consulate after another in Marseille, always with the same negative response. I wasn’t even able to get an interview. I was sent away at the door.
In my desperation, I suddenly remembered that my father had once talked about the . I was maybe 10 years old and the sound of that name had stuck in my head. I asked my father what that meant and he explained that the Congo was a country in Africa and that he owned shares in a Congolese copper mining company. He took out the address and showed me the location of the Belgian Congo, my first encounter with a far away African country. With this memory in my head, I thought maybe, just maybe we could go to the Congo and get to know the mine in which we had owned the share. So with that bit of information and with enormous determination, I went to the consulate of the then Congo Belge, the Belgian Congo.
To my amazement, the consulate greeted me with interest. There weren’t many young women coming to visit him and asking for permission to go to the Congo. I think he understood our predicament immediately and issued us the entry permit we needed. I did not know how to express my gratitude but he just waved me away and said, “Bon voyage Mademoiselle.” I could not believe our good fortune. With that visa and our passport, we were able to get a Spanish and a Portuguese transit visa and eventually, waiting in Portugal for the American quota to open. And it was very difficult to come to the United States at that time.
We came to the United States. Without the help of the Belgian Congo, we might have gotten stuck in France, shipped to a concentration camp and eventually to the gas chambers. So you see, the Congo played a major role in my life. And this is one of the reasons why I have been following the events in the Congo with great interest. As I found out today, my great interest was very inadequate and I am really very happy that I was able to stay here all day and learn what I did. And I am very grateful to the Holocaust museum, that they co-sponsored this amazing conference.
So there’s another reason why I’ve been following the tragic news of the Congo all these years since refugees from the genocide in Rwanda had been taking refuge in the Congo. As a volunteer tour guide in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I’m aware of the activities of the Committee on Conscience. And I applaud the Committee’s efforts to alert the national conscience and to stimulate action, to confront crimes against humanity wherever they occur.
I volunteer my services to the museum because I believe that the terrible crimes that were committed during World War II must not only be remembered, they must also be used to teach the lessons from the Holocaust. The Museum encourages visitors to reflect about the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust. The exhibits show victims, perpetrators and bystanders. There were bystanders all over Europe. They either knew or had heard rumors of what cruel fate befell the victims of National Socialism. And they looked away. It was easier to look away.
During my museum talks, we-- when doing my museum tours, we talk about bystanders. Viewers begin to think of their own reaction to the recent tragedies like those in Bosnia and Rwanda. And they react with horror when they see the millions of refugees in Darfur, in the Chad and now in the Congo. Shocked as we may be, most of us remain bystanders. Luckily, there’s the Museum’s Committee on Conscience and the vital role it plays in the community together with your organization, the Congo Global Action Coalition. You remind us that there are millions of people in the Congo and its neighboring countries who are made homeless and thousands who are killed only because of who they are. We are grateful that there are people like you who are active and remain focused on the crisis in the Congo. It keeps an obscure and terrible conflict in the international spotlight. There are hopeful signs that with your intervention, international support for peace, stability and economic justice for the Congolese people will increase. You are honoring the memory of all those who perished at the hand of the Nazis by your activism and by demonstrating that we are not all bystanders.
It is invigorating to see so many young people here. Survivors of the Holocaust, like I, we are all-- we will soon all be gone. We count on you to be the voice in our society and our institutions. History will judge us all as it always does. When future generations look back on this time, hopefully, they will acknowledge the brave and active individuals like you who battle to improve the lives of the Congolese and who fight totalitarianism in all its forms wherever it occurs. We know that there are many other situations and events here at home that demand our attention and our involvement. But we must remain committed locally, nationally and internationally to fight against injustice, hatred and gender based violence wherever it occurs. Your continued commitment to human rights and stability in the Congo is an inspiration to all of us. Thank you to the Congo Global Action Coalition for simply being who you are. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, Margit. Father Rocco?
FATHER ROCCO PUOPOLO: Good evening, just one last word. I think the example of Margit and another example that happened in this room earlier this afternoon, at the end of the second workshop on gender violence, were serendipitous. But I recommend you all take a look at the book of John Paul Lederach called “Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Peacemaking.” And he dedicates a whole chapter to serendipity. And he says, and I do believe it, “Serendipity is not accidental.” The connection we just heard with Congo and your own story was not accidental.
And about two months ago, I received a telephone call from the vice principal of St. Catherine’s Academy in New York asking how they could get a check to Dr. Dennis Mukewge Mukengere of Bukavu, a Panzi hospital as if I had some kind of a banking connection to Bukavu because Africa Faith & Justice has connections there but-- so I said to her, “Well, he’s actually going to be here in Washington for a conference at the end of March. Do come.” And the school then invited one of my colleagues, Bahati Jacques to go up to New York to talk to the whole school on a snow day about the situation of Congo. And then they got 20 young women from the school, five freshman, five sophomores, five juniors and five seniors and four of their staff to come, and they were with us today, and presented Dr. Dennis Mukewge Mukengere with the check for $3,000.
Serendipity is not accidental. And I think we were part of a serendipitous exercise today as we came together. This has been a long time in preparation. The coalition, as I mentioned this morning, started in the summer of 2006. It took us two years to get to this point. And I have to say, as we leave tonight, I do have mixed feelings, part of it from what we heard, which was very real and very challenging and part from my own experience in West Africa, in Sierra Leone.
And I was reminded, I think, in the middle of the afternoon of that same sense of disconnect that I received in ’99 when I came back in the middle of January two weeks after Freetown was burned and 10,000 people died. And we did make it to the media, page 5 of “The New York Times,” once. And I came here to D.C. and wanted to spend four days kind of telling the story of Sierra Leone. I ended up spending 10. And still at the end of those 10, not sure if they really got it. Could they really bring peace and security to Sierra Leone?
And I think we face the same questions at the end of this day. But I was reminded in that space of something I heard previously from a colleague who said, “Do what you can with what you’ve got where you’re at.” And that’s a little bit of something I’d like to leave with each of us because we’re so different. We have come young and old, Congolese, faith-based groups, NGOs, operational NGOs, humanitarian NGOs, all kinds of people have gathered from last night and tonight. And each of us has something we can do, nothing more, nothing less. With what we’ve got, nothing more, nothing less.
Where we’re at-- those of us here in Washington do what we can here. Those of you who have come from New York and Chicago and Texas and Congo, make sure you can do what you can where you’re at, engaging them. Also, reality is, working as a coalition is not an easy task. For those of us who have been kind of central to coordinating Congo Global Action, there’s been good news and there’s also been bad news.
The good news is if more of us, as I mentioned this morning, put our shoulders together, our muscle behind the movement, it can move more than what any one of us can do. But the bad news is it wasn’t moving fast enough. And the Congolese among us have been first to tell us that they want the Coalition to move a little faster. So we carry that diverse stuff with us as we continue our journey as a coalition.
But in the course of today, I also heard another piece of good news. I’d like to share it with you as I end. When they hear, they care; and when they care, they act. That could mean for those who may be meeting tomorrow, we hope that we can translate the struggle, the story that we heard today to those who will meet tomorrow. But it could also mean all of the many people that we will bring this message to where we’re at-- in our homes, in our churches, our synagogues, our community centers, around the card table. Wherever it is, try to make sure that when they hear, they’ll be invited to care. And when they care, they will act. So to each and every one of you who survived the day, to the museum, to all of our sponsors, to all who really put in a lot to make these days happen, a sincere thanks.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Father Rocco, for those very eloquent words. I don’t even know where to start in terms of thanking people. There have been a lot of people who have been participating in the organization of this conference. I’d first of all like to start with thanking Antonio. Is he here? Antonio. Good job, Antonio. And of course all the people connected to Congo Global Action and to Katie Anne Powell from our staff who’s done a wonderful job putting this together. And to Lori Roop who has really put all the logistical effort into it. And Lori’s probably not in the room, she’s running after somebody outside. But Lori, thank you very, very much.
And to, of course, the steering committee and most of all to all of you. Something that I talk about when I talk about our work at the Committee on Conscience is building a constituency or a community of conscience that will allow us to reach this tipping point or this temperature level or this critical mass. Call it what you want. We’re not there yet.
5.4 million people have died in Congo in the last 10 years. Clearly, we’re not there, but we need to get there because once we get to that tipping point, once we get to that temperature level, these decision makers, whether it be in the United States or whether it be in China, or whether it be-- wherever it may be, the capitals of the world will make the right decision. And in fact, they will respond to what’s happening today in Congo. And this is why we need to be persistent in terms of building this community and this constituency. Margit talked a little bit about bystanders. We talk a lot about bystanders around here. And I think Eli Wiesel said it best. He said, “What hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.” We can’t afford to be bystanders. It’s about making choices and it’s about the consequences of those choices. And you all have made the right choice in being here today. Thank you very much.