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Gay Holocaust survivor shares life lessons

Alfred Munzer laments ongoing religious, racial hatred

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Holocaust Munzer, gay news, Washington Blade
Holocaust Munzer, gay news, Washington Blade

Alfred Munzer in his Van Ness apartment. Now retired from his medical career, Munzer devotes much of his time to the Holocaust Museum. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

First Person 2015 Series: Al Munzer

 

Conversation with a Holocaust Survivor

 

Wednesday, July 29

 

11 a.m.

 

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

 

100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W.

 

Free

 

No registration required

 

ushmm.org

 

Although the odds were not favorable for Alfred Munzer in the circumstances surrounding his birth, in many ways, he ended up being the luckiest member of his family.

He’s the youngest of three children of Simcha and Gisele Munzer, a family of Jewish immigrants from what is now Poland. His parents were childhood sweethearts and were raising two daughters, Eva (born in July 1936) and Leah (born in November 1938) in the Hague, Netherlands. After World War I, anti-Semitism was rampant in their native land and opportunities were limited, so they moved to Holland where there was a substantial population of Jews, some of whom were from families that had been there since the 15th century. Simcha ran a men’s tailoring business.

When Gisele discovered she was expecting a third child — the pregnancy was unplanned — an abortion was advised and, as Munzer tells it today, his mother was told that, “it would be immoral to bring another Jewish life into the world.” Although not especially religious, she was inspired by the Old Testament story of Hannah, the childless woman who vows to God that if she is given a son, she will give him back to God. Her wish is granted with the birth of Samuel.

Munzer, now 73, was born on Nov. 23, 1941. Before he reached his first birthday, in July of 1942, Germans began mass deportations of nearly 100,000 Jews from the occupied Netherlands to the east, primarily Auschwitz, a network of Nazi concentration camps in German-annexed regions that had previously been part of Poland. It marked the beginning of a harrowing season for his family.

Munzer says growing up, he was often reminded of the circumstances around which he was born.

“Any time I was bad growing up, my mother would remind me of this, how she had prayed to God and requested a son,” Munzer says. “She indoctrinated me with this. It was made very clear that she had made the same pledge as Hannah and that I was here in service of God ultimately.”

It’s one of many biographical stories Munzer will share on Wednesday, July 29 when he does another installment of the Holocaust Museum’s First Person program in which survivors are interviewed about their life experiences. Since retiring from his career as an internist and pulmonologist last year, Munzer has become increasingly active as a volunteer at the museum. The program is free.

Having shared his life story many times over the years, first at an artistic event in Woodstock, N.Y., in the early 1980s, Munzer says it’s important that his story and those of other Holocaust survivors continue to be told.

“The angle I usually take is that even in a sea of evil, it is possible for people to do the right thing and stand up for what is right,” he says.

Unlike, for instance, the Anne Frank family, the Munzers thought they’d fare better if they went into hiding separately. Munzer’s two sisters went to live with a Catholic family. Simcha Munzer had received a notice to report for so-called labor duty, essentially a one-way ticket to a concentration camp, but was able to delay it by first having a hernia operation he’d been putting off and later faking a suicide attempt. Joined by Gisele at a Jewish psychiatric hospital where she was pretending to be a nurse’s aide, the two were eventually deported, in early 1943, to Vught Concentration Camp and then a year later to Auschwitz where they were separated.

Gisele had sold the family’s possessions. Neighbors kept some items such as a silver candelabra and fire dragon puppet that are now in Munzer’s Van Ness apartment where he’s lived for about 25 years with his husband, Joel Wind. Though only married for a year and a half, the two have been together since they met at Bet Mishpachah, a local LGBT-affirming synagogue where Munzer sometimes preaches, in 1980.

Things quickly turned dark for the family. The husband of the family raising Munzer’s two older sisters turned out to be a Nazi sympathizer. He denounced his wife and the two girls and all three were arrested and sent to the Westerbork transit camp. On Feb. 8, 1944, Eva, 8, and Leah, 6, were deported to Auschwitz where they were killed three days later.

Alfred was put in the care of a family friend named Annie Madna who placed him with her sister. After about a month, she became too nervous to keep him and placed little Alfred with her ex-husband Tole, a native of Indonesia. Munzer stayed there for the next three years and was looked after by their housekeeper, Mima Saina, who went to great lengths to care for him.

“She really became my mother,” Munzer says. “She was a woman who was completely illiterate, who spoke no Dutch, couldn’t read or write, she spoke only Indonesian, but she had a heart of gold. She would walk — I was in the house illegally, so there were no ration coupons for me — she had to scrounge up milk for me however she could, sometimes walking miles just to get it. I’m told I slept in her bed. She kept a knife under the pillow to kill off any Nazis who might try to get me or even kill me rather than having me fall in their hands. She was an amazing woman who raised me from the time I was about 9 months old till I was about 3 and a half.”

Simcha spent several months in Auschwitz and was then sent to three different camps in Austria. Although eventually freed from one in Ebensee in the Austrian Alps by the U.S. Army, he was so weakened by the ordeal that he died under the care of nuns at a convent just two months later, on July 25, 1945, 70 years ago this weekend. Munzer was told his father had contracted tuberculosis.

Gisele fared better and worked on electronics equipment in a series of camps before she was freed at the Danish border through the intervention of the Swedish Red Cross in early 1945. Although fussy from having been awoken from a nap, being reunited with her is one of Munzer’s earliest memories.

“I was cranky and crying so the whole Matna family was passing me around, like you do with a crying baby, and the only lap I wouldn’t sit on was my own mother’s,” Munzer says. “She was a stranger to me by that point.”

It was decided that his de facto surrogate mother Mima would continue to care for him while Gisele looked for work but Mima had a cerebral hemorrhage about two months later and died. Gisele eventually found work in the garment industry. Although deeply traumatized by the Holocaust, Munzer remembers her as a stoic, matter-of-fact woman. He had no sense growing up that his life was any different from anyone else’s.

“I was surrounded by kids who had lost their parents, who had lost siblings, there really was nothing unusual about that,” he says. “I did not understand as a very young kid what had happened to my sisters. All I knew was that there were these beautiful pictures on the wall of these beautiful girls. Everybody would tell me how wonderful they were. One of my mother’s neighbors would tell me that my older sister could write so perfectly when she was just 6. I was a little bit jealous of them in a sense. I had no comprehension of the fact that they had been killed. I just did not understand why they were missing or just didn’t really think about it.”

Neither, too, did the bombed-out landscape of the Hague, strike young Munzer as unusual.

“My mother had a very good friend who was in a concentration camp with her and she and her husband, well, there was very little housing available there. After my mother closed her store, she had acquired a little cosmetics store, we’d go to visit the Van Der Pols in these few little rooms they had in an attic and we’d walk across these huge fields of rubble to get there. I thought walking through rubble was just a normal thing. Or playing hide and seek in bunkers on the beach. It wasn’t until much later that I came to grips with the Holocaust as such.”

In July 1958, Gisele and then-16-year-old Alfred came to the United States where he became a bit of an overachiever. Located in Brooklyn, he finished high school, college, medical school and advance training at Johns Hopkins. He first came to Washington in 1972 during a two-year tour of duty with the Air Force and an assignment at Andrews Air Force Base.

He has many happy memories of his later years with his mother and says the two enjoyed many trips, including a few to visit his father’s grave, in her later years. A pivotal turning point in his understanding of the Holocaust came in 1978 when the miniseries “The Holocaust” aired on CBS.

“Before, I would hear her in conversations with friends and it was always, ‘so-and-so came back’ or ‘so-and-so did not come back.’ They never used the term survived. She had told me little bits and pieces here and there, actually humorous things mostly. She told me once very late in the game, she was actually cast as Adolf Hitler in a play, that type of thing. But she always had an incredibly positive attitude, which I think is really what kept her alive. She even spoke of being in one of those cattle cars and being able to look out and see the beautiful countryside. She said, ‘After the war, we may not have much money, but at least that was not a bad way to travel around and see nature. … After the ‘Holocaust’ miniseries, I took out a map and had her trace the 12 concentration camps she had been through and she told me the approximate dates and things that had happened at each place.”

Munzer says she was “very matter of fact about it.”

She eventually embraced Wind and on later trips introduced he and Alfred as “her two sons.” She settled in Rockville and enjoyed painting and was “not especially anti-German,” Munzer says. “She judged people individually and felt that was important.” Several of her landscapes hang above Munzer’s sofa now. She died at age 95 about 12 years ago.

Munzer started volunteering at the museum about eight years ago. He conducts tours, helps with Dutch-to-English translation work, gives talks to student groups and more. He says he’s delighted that the museum has remained popular and, although a challenge, is often overwhelmed by the number of people who visit, crowds having far surpassed estimates since its 1993 opening.

Museum staff say the stories from survivors are hugely important and valuable.

“One of the most powerful ways people (understand history) is to engage with someone who witnessed it,” says Diane Saltzman, director of survivor affairs. “Holocaust survivors who volunteer at the museum provide that personal connection for our visitors and bring an incomprehensible past alive and add a unique and powerful dimension to the visitors’ experience.”

Munzer is thrilled the staff — he’s the only LGBT survivor volunteer he knows of — has not raised the slightest issue with him being gay. He also says being out during his medical career was also pleasantly uneventful in that regard.

Last week’s conviction of 94-year-old SS sergeant Oskar Groening, an Auschwitz bookkeeper sentenced to four years imprisonment for his role as an accessory to murder in 300,000 deaths, is “awfully late” in Munzer’s opinion.

“Although I do think it’s important for people to be brought to justice.”

Equally important, Munzer says, is that the Holocaust is not forgotten.

“To me one of the greatest tragedies of the Holocaust is not even what happened but the fact that violence continues and especially genocide continues. The world really did not learn its lesson and the slogan ‘never again’ has really not been upheld. The fact that there is still religious hatred and racial hatred is just really, really sad. The re-emergence of anti-Semitism but even more in general, just not recognizing people as part of the common human race.”

Holocaust, gay news, Washington Blade

Joel Wind (standing) and Alfred Munzer married in 2013 after more than 30 years together. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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Tagg turns 10

D.C. magazine thriving post-pandemic with focus on queer women

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‘Tagg is a form of resistance,’ says editor Eboné Bell. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a 10-year-old YouTube video, owner and editor of Tagg magazine, Eboné Bell, — clad in a white cotton T-shirt, gray vest and matching gray fedora — smiled with all her pearly whites as a correspondent for the magazine interviewed her outside now-closed Cobalt, a gay club in downtown D.C. that hosted the magazine’s official launch in the fall of 2012. 

“I want to make sure that people know that this is a community publication,” Bell said in the video. “It’s about the women in this community and we wanted to make sure that they knew that ‘This is your magazine.’”

As one of just two queer womxn’s magazines in the country, Tagg has established itself as one of the nation’s leading and forthright LGBTQ publications that focuses on lesbian and queer culture, news, and events. The magazine is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.

Among the many beats Tagg covers, it has recently produced work on wide-ranging political issues such as the introduction of the LGBTQ+ History Education Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Supreme Court’s assault on reproductive rights through a reversal of its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling; and also attracted the attention of international queer celebrities, including Emmy-nominated actress Dominique Jackson through fundraisers.

“Tagg is a form of resistance,” Bell said in a Zoom interview with the Washington Blade. “I always say the best form of activism is visibility and we’re out there authentically us.”

Although the magazine was created to focus on lifestyle, pressing political issues that affect LGBTQ individuals pushed it to dive deeper into political coverage in efforts to bring visibility to LGBTQ issues that specifically affect queer femme individuals. 

“We know the majority of our readers are queer women,’ said Bell. “[So] we always ask ourselves, ‘How does this affect our community?’ We are intentional and deliberate about it.”

Rebecca Damante, a contributing writer to the magazine echoed Bell’s sentiments. 

“The movement can sometimes err toward gay white men and it’s good that we get to represent other groups,” said Damante. “I feel really lucky that a magazine like Tagg exists because it’s given me the chance to polish my writing skills and talk about queer representation in media and politics.”

Tagg’s coverage has attracted younger readers who visit the magazine’s website in search of community and belonging. Most readers range between the ages of 25 and 30, Bell said. 

“[The magazine] honestly just took on a life of its own,” said Bell. “It’s like they came to us [and] it makes perfect sense.”

Prior to the magazine becoming subscription-based and completely online, it was a free publication that readers could pick up in coffee shops and distribution boxes around D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. 

Battling the pandemic 

Eboné Bell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, newsrooms across the world were forced to function virtually. Additionally, economic strife forced many publications to downsize staffs and — in some cases — cancel entire beats as ad revenue decreased, forcing them to find alternative ways to self-sustain financially. Tagg was no exception. 

“We didn’t fly unscathed,” said Bell. “[The pandemic] took a huge emotional toll on me because I thought we were going to close. I thought we were going to fail.”

However, the magazine was able to stand firm after a fundraiser titled “Save Tagg Magazine” yielded about $30,000 in donations from the community. 

The fundraiser involved a storefront on Tagg’s website where donations of LGBTQ merchandise were sold, including a book donated by soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe. 

There was also a virtual “Queerantine Con” — an event that was the brainchild of Dana Piccoli, editor of News Is Out— where prominent LGBTQ celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Lea DeLaria and Kate Burrell, gave appearances to help raise money that eventually sustained the publication. 

“There was a time where I was ready to be like ‘I have to be OK that [Tagg] might not happen anymore,” said Bell. “But because of love and support, I’m here.” 

While the outpouring of love from community members who donated to the magazine helped keep the magazine alive, it was also a stark reminder that smaller publications, led by women of color, have access to fewer resources than mainstream outlets. 

“It’s statistically known that Black women-owned businesses get significantly less support, venture capital investments, things like that,” said Bell. “I saw similar outlets such as Tagg with white people making $100,000 a month.”

Bell added that Tagg had to work “10 times harder” to survive, and although the magazine didn’t cut back on the people who worked for it, it ended free access to the magazine in the DMV especially as the places that housed the magazine were no longer in business. The publication also moved to a subscription-based model that allowed it to ameliorate printing costs. 

Despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic, Tagg remains steadfast in its service to the LGBTQ community. The magazine hired an assistant editor in 2021 and has maintained a team of graphic designers, photographers, writers and an ad sales team who work to ensure fresh content is delivered to readers on a regular basis. 

For Bell, Tagg mirrors an important life experience — the moment she discovered Ladders, a lesbian magazine published throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. 

“To that young person coming up, I want you to see all the things that happened before them, all the people that came before them, all the stories that were being told” she said.

Eboné Bell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’

Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following

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Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya Clark. (Photo courtesy Sony/Columbia)

Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan. 

With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.

BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.

BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?

EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.

BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?

EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.

BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs]

BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?

EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.

BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?

EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.

BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.

BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?

EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.

BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?

EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.

BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?

EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.

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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role

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Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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