Q&A: Holocaust Survivors on Charlottesville, Silence as Complicity and Preventing History from Repeating Itself

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel once said: “To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice.”

In the wake of Charlottesville and a growing conversation about white supremacy in the U.S., Ms. spoke with two Holocaust survivors—95-year-old Margit Meissner and 75-year-old Louise Lawrence-Israëls—about the lessons we must learn from the past and how we can fight hate in our own communities. Both women volunteer regularly at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and have dedicated much of their adult lives to educating others and working to prevent history from repeating itself. They spoke with us candidly as private citizens, not as museum representatives.

Photos courtesy of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

What does your role at the museum entail? Are you there frequently?  

Meissner: I am a guide in all three exhibits. I speak to different groups and I do translating in the archives. I’ve been there for 12 years. Today, I guided a group of Latin American army people in Spanish. Yesterday, I talked to a group of 50 Iraqi high school students who were in the United States for a workshop on peaceful conflict resolution. So, I worked in the museum two days this week. I don’t have a regular schedule.

Lawrence-Israëls: I’ve volunteered for 23 years. I started off as a translator: Dutch to English, German to English, French to English and Italian to English. That evolved into talking to groups – I work for the Speakers Bureau and travel for the museum. I’m part of the writers group called “Echoes of Memory.” I have one full day a week and very often there are two extra half-days.

Why do you volunteer?

Meissner: Because I have the opportunity to influence young people. I speak to them about how one can prevent violence and prejudice that exists in the world. I have these language skills which makes it possible for me to translate some stuff that is important to have the archives. The guiding matters because when they hear from a survivor it means more than when they hear it from somebody who just learned the history.

Lawrence-Israëls: I feel that I have to for as long as I can. There are only a few of us who are capable of doing it. People today still need some legitimacy because there are so many Holocaust deniers. Once they have spoken to a survivor they know that it is not a hoax. My hope and dream is that people learn about these atrocities and they will help us fight for the future. That they’ll understand what the results are if you spread hatred.

Do most survivors tell their stories for the same reason?

Meissner: They all work there for different reasons but many of them were children during the Holocaust (like Louise). They were hidden children or very small children and they feel, very correctly, that they have to tell their story to the public so it should not be forgotten.

Lawrence-Israëls: We had at one time about 100 survivor volunteers. Not everybody’s active anymore. I’d say the average age is between 85-100. I’m the youngest. We are all working hard and want freedom for everybody. It’s not just Jews [we want freedom for]–I’m talking about Muslims, I’m talking about African Americans—it’s freedom for everybody. That you can be what you were born to be.


Photo courtesy of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Did you see the footage out of Charlottesville? What was your reaction?

Meissner: I was horrified. When I saw this car charging the group, all I could think of is something I say to groups when I give tours. I say, “Individuals make a big difference.” Each individual should be involved in his community in a peaceful way.  And now you have this one individual who drove his car and look at the difference it made. I keep saying to all groups that in the end, every decision you make is an individual decision. You have people who influence you, but it’s up to you whether you’re going to act upon the influence or not.

Lawrence-Israëls: My initial response was crying. I had such a hard time. I have such a hard time about repetition. I wonder: people don’t want to learn? They don’t want to know? It’s selfish. It’s despicable. They only think about themselves. And that’s how things grew in the 1930s. That for me is very hard to take.

Did you think this could happen in 2017? 

Lawrence-Israëls: I know that it can happen but when it happens and so-called “educated people” that are in charge of the country don’t denounce it, that is beyond awful. I know it can happen. I have gone to Rwanda twice and worked with teachers who have programs there. They try to teach young people how to prevent it. I’ve been to Bosnia, did the same thing with teachers there. How come we cannot do that in this country? By not denouncing it and not pointing fingers, that’s almost criminal. Because you give people the freedom to do more. When I see something like this I get really emotional. Because I want to believe, very simply, the way Anne Frank wrote in her diary, that people are basically good.

Do you have a direct response to Trump’s comments? 

Meissner: I have a direct response. I think that Trump’s behavior is completely out of line and that a President of the United States should not act like a school boy. I think that he is remiss in permitting the violence to occur. If you look at the statistics–the amount of anti-Semitic and anti-peaceful resolution–all these occurrences have just skyrocketed [since he became President]. Look at Southern Poverty Law Center’s findings; it is really frightening. I am very upset about the way that he runs his office.

Lawrence-Israëls: My initial response is: “You’re just a bunch of dumbbells,” but that’s not good enough. You can be ignorant but you can learn, but they don’t want to. In the country that we live in, it’s very hard to see that people didn’t learn from history. If you look at it: Holocaust history, slavery history, not accepting people… they don’t want to learn. It’s beyond sad to me. I think that [Trump] should have denounced any extremist group. We are supposed to live in a free country and thank God for the free press. Freedom of speech is important but when it’s hateful, the person who is the head of the country has to denounce it. He has to set an example for the rest of the people. We don’t have that today.

Meissner: A government sets the tone. The German government set the tone for discrimination and hatred of the Jews. It was very clear that individuals who listened to the government rhetoric could involve themselves in hate activities. In Charlottesville, you have a relatively small group of white supremacists who are trying to take over the community. It’s not government sponsored but if government officials bless the violence then violent people feel that they are being encouraged. I think that it’s a government’s responsibility to try and decrease the violence and decrease the hatred. To decrease the discrimination, not foster it.

What should concerned citizens do?  

Meissner: They should look at the webpage of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have a list which tells you 10 Ways To Combat Hate. It is wonderful. I also think that people should really look at the facts and not only listen to one particular radio or television station. They should get a cross-section of opinions and then make up their own mind, and not be beholden to one ideology. They should be able to know enough and be aware enough to be able to make up their own minds.

Lawrence-Israëls: The most important thing is to be informed. Don’t close your eyes about what has happened around you. See and talk to people of authority, like teachers or children’s parents or their grandparents. See how you can form yourself a group that fights against bullying and hatred. Don’t close your eyes when the nightly news is on television. Find out what it is, and what the root of it is, and if there’s anything you can do to go against that.

If millions of people write the president that he made the wrong decision, eventually he and elected officals will do something about it. But don’t be silent. If you’re silent, you’re almost complicit. I think you have to speak up about it. Our museum is such an amazing institution. They speak up. They cannot be political because it’s a government entity but they come out with certain statements on the website, and it’s always drawn back to history.

Of course, you have different ages. For each age group, there’s a way of being informed and a way of speaking up against hatred. If people don’t do that, we have nothing. As long as there are enough people who will talk against these fanatics, as long as there are enough people saying “they’re wrong,” we’ll get somewhere.


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.