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Belt for a kittel [ceremonial robe] saved by a Czech Jewish refugee

Object | Accession Number: 2009.147.6

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    Belt for a kittel [ceremonial robe] saved by a Czech Jewish refugee

    Overview

    Brief Narrative
    Long, narrow belt for a kittel, a ceremonial robe worn by a Jewish male, used by Norbert Meissner, who was president of the synagogue in Trest, Czechoslovakia, before and during the Holocaust. He and his wife, Lotte, and son, Leo, were deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. A year later, they were sent to Auschwitz death camp where they perished. The belt was preserved by his son, Frank. Frank, age 16, left Czechoslovakia in October 1939 because of the increasing Nazi persecution of Jews as Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Nazi Germany and its allies. With the encouragement of his family, he left for Denmark with members of Youth Aliyah, a organization that helped people to emigrate to Palestine. In 1943, the Germans began to deport all Jews from Denmark. Frank was warned that the Gestapo was looking for him and he was smuggled on a fishing boat to Sweden. He had been receiving weekly letters from his family, even after their deportation to the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1942; the letters stopped in 1943. After completing his education, Franz left for Great Britain where he joined the Czech army in exile. In the fall of 1944, Franz learned that his family had been sent to Auschwitz death camp. After the war, he returned to Czechoslovakia, searching for his family, but he found no survivors.
    Date
    emigration:  1939 October
    Geography
    received: Trest (Czech Republic)
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Margit Meissner
    Contributor
    Subject: Frank Meissner
    Subject: Margit Meissner
    Subject: Norbert Meissner
    Biography
    Franz (Frank) Meissner was born on September 18, 1923, in Trest, Czechoslovakia to Norbert and Lotte. He had an older brother, Leo, and his paternal grandfather also lived with them. His father had owned a wooden shoe factory, but it closed during the economic crisis of 1929. His mother worked as a secretary at her brother’s machine factory to support the family. His father was the president of their synagogue and they went to synagogue every morning. The Jewish community in Trest was small, with only 64 members in 1930. There was no secondary school in Trest, so when Frank was 11 years old he attended school in a neighboring town. In 1937, he left school to apprentice at his uncle’s machine factory. That year he also joined Youth Aliyah, a Zionist youth group, and traveled to Prague to learn Hebrew and to develop a farm proposal for emigration to Palestine. Both brothers wished to emigrate from Czechoslovakia, with the entire family joining them later.
    In October 1939, because of increasing persecution by the Germans, Youth Aliyah arranged the emigration from Czechoslovakia to Denmark of many members, including 16 year old Frank. Leo, still waiting to go to Palestine, chose to remain with their parents. Frank was strip searched at the border wehn he eft October 24. He and the other boys were sent to live and work on farms in Denmark. After an initial unpleasant placement, Frank stayed with the Nielsen family, where he was made to feel like part of the family and became involved with the Nielsen’s church. In 1941, he earned a scholarship to attend an agricultural high school in Denmark. Through these early years of the war, Frank received weekly letters from his family. In May of 1942, his family wrote that they were getting ready for their departure, although they do not know where they are going. They tell Frank that they are proud of him and that he should not worry about the family.
    After graduating high school, Frank enrolled in the Agricultural College of the University of Copenhagen. In October 1943, he received a call from his landlady telling him not to return home because the Gestapo was looking for him. With the aid of a friend with connections to the underground resistance movement, Frank was smuggled on a fishing boat to Sweden, where he finished his education. While mail service to Europe temporarily improved, and Frank could occasionally send packages of food, he no longer received any letters in return. In September 1944, Frank went to England and was told that if he wanted refuge and a Czech passport, he had to volunteer for the Czech government in exile army. He served in the Royal Air Force in Scotland for the rest of the war. He intensified his efforts to find his family and learned that they had been deported to Theresienstadt. Around May or June 1945, Frank went back to Prague to search for them. A woman from their town wrote Frank that his family had not returned after the war and that after a year in Theresienstadt they had been sent to Auschwitz where they perished. In 1946, he was demobilized and returned to the University in Copenhagen, graduating in 1948 with a bachelor of science in agronomy. He returned to Czechoslovakia, but left six months after the Communist coup that February. He emigrated to the United States in January 1949. He attended Iowa State College and after receiving a masters in agronomy, transferred to the University of California, and 3 years later to Cornell where he earned his doctorate. In 1953, Frank married Margit Morawetz, originally from Austria. She had fled from Prague to France, eventually emigrating to the US in April 1941. 1953. Frank, age 67, died from cancer January 19, 1990, in Maryland.
    Margit Morawetz was born February 26, 1922, in Innsbruck, Austria. Her parents were Gottlieb Morawetz and Lilly Tritsch. She had three older brothers, Paul, Felix, and Bruno. They ranged in age from 8 to 5 years older than Margit. The family was wealthy and assimilated. Margit's father came from an orthodox Jewish family of poor tenant farmers in Bohemia. He studied law in Vienna and worked as a bank director. Her mother came from an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna and was educated in England and France. When Margit was one year old, the family moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where her father taught on the law faculty of Charles University, in addition to working in finance. Margit and her brothers grew up speaking Czech, German, French, and English. Lilly was ambivalent about the family's Jewish identity and wanted to have the children baptized. Her husband would not allow it, and the children were never given any religious education. In 1932, Gottlieb died suddenly at age 52. Lilly was then 39. The two oldest brothers, Paul and Felix, went overseas. Bruno stayed in Prague and studied agriculture.

    In 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Lilly decided it was safer to take Margit, then 16, out of school and send her to Paris, where she lived with a French family and studied dressmaking. Lilly was visiting Margit in Paris later that year when Germany annexed part of Czechoslovakia. Lilly hurried back to Prague to sell their home and ship their possessions to Paris, but while she was still in Prague, Germany annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Both she and her son Bruno managed to escape to Paris, but had to leave everything behind. Because of his agricultural training, Bruno was allowed to go to England to work as a farmhand. During this period, Margit was baptized a Lutheran with her mother's encouragement, possibly with the thought that it would provide some protection. Even before that, however, their papers did not identify them as Jews, only as Austrian citizens. When the authorities were interested in them, it was only as alien refugees, not as Jews.

    In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and France declared war on Germany. Since Austria was now part of Germany, the French considered Austrian citizens enemy aliens. Lilly was deported to a detention camp in Gurs in southern France. Margit was ordered to report in to the Paris police on a regular basis. In May1940, Germany invaded France. As German forces approached Paris, Margit bought a bicycle and joined the exodus from Paris toward the south. She spent the night with other refugees in a school in Etampes. Early in the morning, she resumed her trip south, leaving the school two hours before it was hit by German bombs. In Orleans, she boarded a train to Salies-de-Bearn, close to Gurs and the border that had just been established between the German Occupied Zone and the Free Zone. Now that France had capitulated, people with Austrian citizenship were no longer enemy aliens, so Lilly was released and rejoined Margit. They hired a farmer to smuggle their bags across the boundary into the Free Zone, and crossed over unencumbered as if they were just going for a stroll. So as not to be identified as foreign nationals, they carried no identification papers with them, only food ration cards that they still had from Paris, to give the impression that they were residents of that city. They traveled to Marseilles and began the long process of obtaining exit visas from France and immigration visas to some other country. When their money ran low, they received financial aid from the American rescuer Varian Fry. They eventually obtained transit visas to Spain and Portugal and a visa to the Belgian Congo on the grounds that Margit's father had owned shares in a Congolese mining firm. France, however, would not grant them exit visas before their transit visas were due to expire, so Margit and her mother traveled by train to Cerbere and walked through the hills into Spain illegally. They were arrested by Spanish police and spent several days in jail until German friends who now lived in Barcelona obtained their release. Margit and her mother then traveled on to Lisbon, Portugal. Since many other refugees had arrived there without much clothing, Margit was able to earn money as a dressmaker. They contacted Margit's brother Felix, who was living in the United States. He facilitated their immigration and they arrived in America in April 1941.

    In December 1941, Margit married Otmar Gyorgy, a G.I. and a friend of her brother Felix. After America's entry into World War II, she worked for the Office of War Information, making use of her knowledge of languages, which now included Spanish and Portuguese. After the war, Margit worked for the U.S. Army Assistance Program to German Youth Activities, re-educating former Hitler Youth in Furth, Germany. She and Otmar eventually divorced. In 1953, she married Frank Meissner, a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia. They had 2 children. Frank, age 67, died of cancer in 1990.
    Norbert Meissner was born on May 26, 1884, in Trest, Czechoslovakia, where his family had lived for generations. He was married to Lotte Grunberger. They lived in Trest with their two sons, Leo, born on April 6, 1920, and Ferenz (Frank), born on September 18, 1923. His father lived with the family. Norbert had owned a wooden shoe factory, but it closed during the economic crisis of 1929. Lotte worked as a secretary at her brother’s machine factory to support the family. Norbert was the president of their synagogue and the family attended synagogue every morning. The Jewish community in Trest was small, with only 64 members in 1930. Both sons were active in Youth Aliyah, a Zionist youth group that provided training to members for emigration to Palestine. They wished to emigrate from Czechoslovakia, with the entire family joining them later.

    In September 1938, the western powers signed the Munich Pact which gave Hitler permission to annex the Sudetenland border region of Czechoslovakia. In March 1939, Germany invaded and occupied Bohemia and Moravia, where Trest (Triesch) was located. In late October 1939, sixteen year old Frank was sent to Denmark with a Youth Aliyah group. Leo stayed with his parents, still hoping to go to Palestine. In January 1941, the factory was confiscated and given to a non-Jew, and Lotte loses her job in March. Relatives and friends move in with the Meissner’s as anti-Jewish laws leave many without resources. In May, all men are ordered to undergo physical examinations in order to enter forced labor service. Norbert is assigned to work on railroad construction. A few months later, all Jews are ordered to spend several hours every week cleaning the streets.

    In November 1941, the Germans create a large concentration camp-ghetto in nearby Theresienstadt and began to deport Czech Jews there. During all this time, the family has been able to correspond and send packages to Frank in Denmark. All letters are censored by the Germans. Most are chatty ones about everyday life. In November, Lotte writes: “It is of little use to worry about things in the future. We will not escape whatever is meant for us, and so we accept it as inevitable.”
    Norbert, Lotte, Leo, and his father were deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp on May 18, 1942. On October 16, 1944, they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center where they perished.

    Physical Details

    Classification
    Dress Accessories
    Category
    Belts (Clothing)
    Physical Description
    Long, thin, rectangular, offwhite cloth that is widest at the ends and tapers toward the center seam. A lace applique is machine stitched onto the hem.
    Dimensions
    overall: Height: 69.250 inches (175.895 cm) | Width: 4.375 inches (11.113 cm)
    Materials
    overall : cloth, lace

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    No restrictions on access
    Conditions on Use
    No restrictions on use

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    Provenance
    The kittel belt was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009 by Margit Meissner, the widow of Frank Meissner.
    Record last modified:
    2022-07-28 21:51:06
    This page:
    https:​/​/collections.ushmm.org​/search​/catalog​/irn37632

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