Genocide survivors share experiences, hope


Holocaust survivor and United States National Holocaust Museum guide, Margit Meissner, 90, right, gives Rwanda genocide survivor and director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Freddy Mutanguha, 36, a personal tour of the museum. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)
August 5, 2012

At first glance, Freddy Mutanguha and Margit Meissner couldn’t be more different.

Mutanguha, 36, is tall and black, with a round face, high cheekbones and quiet voice. Meissner, 90, is short and white, with a beak-shaped nose and a frank, disarming manner.

But they both work in museums. They both have Facebook profiles.

And they are both genocide survivors.

Meissner was 16 years old when she fled Czechoslovakia for France, just as the Nazis were annexing Austria. Mutanguha was 18 when he fled Rwanda’s western province for the southern part of the country, leaving behind two dead parents and four dead sisters.

Meissner, a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, lives in Bethesda.

Mutanguha, director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, lives in Rwanda.

And this weekend, they both were in Washington, where Meissner gave Mutanguha a tour of the Holocaust Museum — and they both reflected on their mutual hope that educating people about genocides that have already occurred might prevent others.

The two survivors first met in June when Meissner visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial as part of a trip she was taking with Women for Women International, an organization that teaches women in eight war-torn countries basic economic skills. Meissner sponsors a young Rwandan woman as part of the program, but because Women for Women International’s relationship with the Kigali Genocide Memorial was so informal, Mutanguha didn’t even know about Meissner’s visit.

“When [a colleague] said, ‘Did you know there was a Holocaust survivor that came to the memorial,’ I said . . . ‘It’s not possible,’ ” exclaimed Mutanguha.

The two finally met for breakfast, on the last day of Meissner’s trip.

“We became friends; we get along very well,” Mutanguha says.

Meissner convinced Mutanguha to come to Washington.

On his way to a conference in Los Angeles on preventing genocide, Mutanguha spent 24 hours in Washington with support from Women for Women International and a bed for the night in Meissner’s home.

Meissner has been a museum guide for the past six years. She spent 30 years working in special education administration in Montgomery County. It was only after writing her memoirs — encouraged by her children — that she realized the significance of her story.

“As a survivor, I realized I was in a unique position. There are thousands of people who could do [special education advocacy], but there are not a lot of Holocaust survivors left.”

Mutanguha got involved in genocide prevention work as a volunteer with a student association at his university. He helped gather testimony and photographs from thousands of survivors of the 1994 slaughter, which left an estimated 800,000 Rwandans dead. After graduating with a degree in biography and geography, Mutanguha was offered a volunteer job with Aegis Trust, a genocide prevention organization that was tapped to create a memorial museum in Kigali. In 2006, Mutanguha was offered the post of director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

“If you want to understand what happened and you don’t listen to survivors, you will never have full, relevant information,” Mutanguha says.

Their shared interest in survivor testimonies is clear as Meissner takes Mutanguha through the Holocaust Museum. Mutanguha watches a screening in the “From Memory to Action” installation, waiting for a taped interview with Carl Wilkens, a humanitarian aid worker who was one of the few Americans to stay in Rwanda when the genocide took place.

After the tour, Mutanguha and Meissner share their thoughts. Mutanguha is gentle with his praise, while Meissner isn’t afraid to disagree. He appreciates the way the museum touches on other genocides in the world, but Meissner disagrees.

“[The Holocaust Museum] doesn’t have anything about Armenia. The main exhibit is only about the Jews, so I was very impressed with the [Kigali Genocide Memorial]. You talk about the Holocaust, you talk about Bosnia, you talk about Armenia, you talk about Cambodia. This museum doesn’t talk about Cambodia at all,” Meissner says.

Some of their opinions seem to reflect generational differences: “The messages on the table, this is good,” Mutanguha says about an exhibit in “From Memory to Action” that lights up with information when touched.

“I don’t know that it is good.” says Meissner, as Mutanguha laughs. Meissner continues, “I personally think that it is a distraction.”

What emerges most is the emotional bond that quickly developed between two people who have shared atrocity.

“Margaret . . .” Mutanguha begins.

“Margit!” Meissner interrupts him.

“Margarit, sorry my English . . . ”

They laugh.

“Margit is like a mother to us,” Mutanguha continues.

The shared pain of their past has left Mutanguha and Meissner keenly aware of the ways in which the world has failed to prevent other genocides. But Mutanguha is cautiously optimistic about the impact this museum and others like it could have.

“This memorial in Washington, it’s very well done,” he says. “It covers everything we need to know about. So let’s see what the world will do.”

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