Students and community members gathered Wednesday night at Reynolds Performance Hall at the University of Central Arkansas to hear the story of Nazi-occupied Europe from Margit Meissner.
First-hand accounts of the genocide of WWII are becoming rare as witnesses of the Holocaust are aging.
Meissner, 88, gave her account of her family’s dispersal from Czechoslovakia into the world away from Hitler’s Europe.
As a young girl, Meissner was sent by her mother to Paris to study French and dress-making.
Meissner spoke about the general attitude of Czechoslovakia as one of denial.
"Many people thought nothing would happen in Czechoslovakia. Within six months, Hitler took it over," Meissner said. "It was at that point that my mother came to France as a visitor. We were sitting on pins and needles, wondering what would happen next."
While in Paris, Meissner’s mother was served papers asking her to present herself to the police in three days with her belongings on her back, two blankets and three days-worth of food. She was told she would be evacuated to the south of France to a concentration camp.
Meissner, with the last of her mother’s money being left to her, purchased a bicycle, which she rode through crowded streets past non-functioning train and bus stations.
"I found a men’s bicycle in the last bike shop. I had a suitcase with underwear, dress-making notes and my oil paints. That is how I tried to escape. I joined a crowd going south with no idea where I was going. I felt terrible and afraid," Meissner said.
After riding through crowded roads until nightfall, Meissner sought refuge in a school house.
"At daylight, I got on my bike and continued riding. I found out the next day that at 7 a.m. the school had been bombed to smithereens," Meissner said.
Meissner traveled to a working train station and recalled the scene as one of chaos. She recalled waiting in line and looking up through the station’s glass ceiling to see bombs falling from planes on either side of her.
After securing herself a seat on a departing train, she rode south, away from Nazi-occupied territories, to the south of France.
It is on this part of the journey that Meissner recalls a deep regret. On the train, she denied her identity as that of a Jewish refugee, as they were unwelcome in France.
"I regret that 60 years later. I believe that attitude of being afraid is the same one that allowed the Holocaust to happen. People did not have the courage to object to it. I was saving myself," Meissner said.
Meissner found her mother, she said, through a miraculous series of chances.
"After a series of more lucky coincidences and escape stories, we made it out of France together," Meissner said.
The pair were imprisoned in Spain for a short time, where Meissner said her life was truly changed.
"While in jail, we were starving with no bowls to eat soup with or to drink out of. It was a prostitute that gave us a bowl, and it saved our lives. It changed my world view. I thought I knew what the world was like and where I belonged in this world," Meissner said. "Seeing people I would have looked down upon being generous and helpful showed me the view of the world. I had been mistaken. And it informed who I became."
Meissner and her mother came to the United States in 1941. Her three brothers emigrated to Australia, Canada and India.
Meissner is the author of a book, "Margrit’s Story," which explains in detail her and her family’s exodus from Nazi-occupied Europe. The book, she believes, is integral in helping third generations understand the Holocaust.
"In a way, the Holocaust is something so hard to understand. One has to understand it with one’s emotions. I am supposed to talk about my own experience. I would like to tell you how the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the Holocaust. It says it was the institutional murder by government action, the government of Nazi Germany and its allies, in murdering six-million Jews, and many others Hitler deemed unworthy."
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)