A brief account of Margot Muntz’s life

by Nancy Forest

Each one of us has his or her own memory of Margot. They’re all so personal, and we’d be here all week if we were to begin to share them all. Margot had a unique way of making her relationship with each person very special, and what we treasure about her is not only what she meant to us as a group, but also what she meant to each one of us personally — our particular friendships with her.

I’m not going to talk about my relationship with Margot. I’m just going to talk a bit about her life — what I learned about her amazing history. We had a lot in common, which only really means that I know a little bit about the place she grew up and what she went through in her life.

Elizabeth Zwatschka was born on May 26, 1914, in New York City. Her mother was a Polish immigrant and her father was from Germany. Her father was a baker and eventually they opened a shop of their own in New Jersey. She had two brothers, John and Fred, and one sister, Lillian, who was killed in a car accident at the age of six. At that time, the early 20th century, the New York area was a real melting pot. It was the very end of the great flood of European immigrants that had been coming to America since the late 19th century. They sailed into New York harbor, many of them very poor. They landed on Ellis Island, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, and from there they were on their own. Most of the immigrants had the addresses of other people from their home countries, and they would seek those people out for help in finding a place to live and a job. Whole towns grew up in New York State and New Jersey, and in many other parts of the country, that consisted of people from one particular European country. They had their own churches, shops that sold the food they were used to eating, and the older ones spoke their own language. But the younger people wanted to assimilate quickly — to become Americans and to learn English — so the children of most immigrants never learned the language of their parents. Margot didn’t speak Polish or German, but her mother was a devout Catholic and she was raised in a Polish Catholic milieu.

One thing that the children of immigrants had in common was that they were influenced by their parents’ ambition and courage. It took enormous courage to leave Europe back then and to immigrate to America, knowing you’d probably never ever be able to return, not even to visit. I think we could see that ambition and courage, and a real sense of adventure, in the way Margot lived her life. Another thing the children of immigrants often had in common was their parents’ Old World ways. These immigrants brought with them a kind of 19th-century Old World grace and elegance that crystallized when they got to America. They never became 20th-century Europeans, but they didn’t become 20th-century Americans, either. I think we could recognize that in Margot, too. It was in her blood, in the way she was raised.

Her parents had a very difficult marriage. Her father was a very ambitious, violent man who was always looking for a better opportunity and better work. The family moved over and over again, from town to town, and Margot became tired of all the moving. Margot adored her mother; she regarded her as almost perfect, a woman of measureless love and devotion. She was afraid of her father, who drank too much, smoked too much, and made life miserable for her mother. “Your father is my cross,” her mother used to say. She said all she remembered about her father was his dark moods and frequent violent outbursts; he never smiled or laughed. Margot was determined never to allow herself to lose control the way her father did. She said she thought it was because of her father that she never learned to deal with her own anger in a constructive way.

She was very bright, but she didn’t go to college. Many girls didn’t back then. College was expensive for middle-class immigrant families, and if you sent anybody to college it was the sons. But Margot had a great love of books and a love of culture. Somerville, New Jersey, is quite close to New York City, and she went to New York — she may have lived there for a while when she was older — visiting museums, going to the ballet and to the theatre, going to bookstores. She especially loved the ballet, and she took lessons for many years. She never lost her love of ballet, and you could see the training she had in the graceful way she walked — her straight back and the relaxed, flowing way she moved her body. But she didn’t become a professional dancer. Why not? She told me once that she didn’t have “the right kind of body”. Maybe she was too small. At any rate, she new she had to support herself somehow, so she went to nursing school and became a nurse.

When she was in her twenties, in the late 1930s, she and one of her girlfriends decided to do something adventurous. They decided to take a Caribbean cruise. This was pretty adventurous at the time, but it wasn’t out of the question for young women from New Jersey. Europe would have been out of the question, but a Caribbean cruise was affordable. Maybe they went to Bermuda. At any rate, on the boat Margot met a young Russian seaman who was one of the crew. His name was Pierre Muntz. Pierre was from Odessa, but he was living in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam and he had become a Dutch national. Margot and Pierre fell in love. When the cruise was over, Margot went back to New York and Pierre to Amsterdam, and they promised to write to each other. Then the war broke out. It was impossible for Margot to go to Holland and impossible for Pierre to visit America, but they kept writing letters — for 7 long years. In 1946, after the war was over, Margot decided to do something that was just as adventurous as what her parents had done. She left the US and came to Amsterdam to marry Pierre. She had only been with him once, on that first cruise, and she hadn’t seen him in 7 years. This was not a romantic Europe she was going to. It was post-war Europe, Europe in tatters, Europe still on rations, with the trauma of the war still fresh. What a risk she was taking!

But she came, and they were married. They moved into the little apartment so many of us remember so fondly, on the Nicolaas Maesstraat.

Pierre worked as a seaman for the merchant marine, and he was gone nine months out of every year. So Margot was on her own much of the time, and she had to make a life for herself. As far as I can tell she and Pierre had a wonderful marriage. They were always deeply in love. Even at the end of her life she would say, “I didn’t deserve him!” But she was used to living in an intensely cultural city, and she made her way. It was through Pierre that Margot first met Matushka Tatiana and Father Alexis – way before the St. Nicolaas Church had been started. She once told me about meeting Tatiana for the first time. Tatiana and Pierre were both from Odessa, and Tatiana thought Pierre was a pretty wonderful guy — tall, handsome, intellectual. So when he introduced Margot for the first time — this tiny little American girl — Tatiana couldn’t believe it. At least that was Margot’s memory of the occasion, and she laughed when she told me.

Margot continued visiting museums and the theatre here in Amsterdam. At some point she decided to try her hand at translation work. There must have been a huge need for good native-speaking translators in the city at the time. With her interest in art and literature, she had no trouble finding work. She became one of the leading English translators for the Stedelijk Museum, and only stopped doing translation work for them when she was in her 80s. She never learned to use a computer, but they were quite willing to take her typewritten translations and have them converted to computer disks. What I never knew was that Margot used the money she earned as a translator to support a poor child in Greece.

Pierre was a heavy smoker. It’s hard for me to imagine Margot living in that tidy little apartment on the Nicolaas Maesstraat with a guy smoking like a chimney, but she did. At a certain point Pierre became ill and was diagnosed as having emphysema (emfyseem). He had to stop work, and Margot, with her nurse’s training, cared for him at home. One of her strongest memories from that time, I believe, was reading to Pierre from her beloved books as he got worse and worse.

Pierre died in 1964. They had been married 18 years, and Margot was 50. Sadly, they had been able to have no children. But after a while she was able to pull her life back together and keep on going. She started traveling — to Greece (she learned modern Greek), to Finland and to many other countries — making friends wherever she went. She kept writing to them, they would come visit her whenever they were in Amsterdam. Some of them are probably with us today.

Margot attended a few different churches in the Netherlands, both Protestant and Catholic, and was particularly enthusiastic about Huub Oosterhuis’s Studentenecclesia. But in about 1974 she was received into the Russian Orthodox Church — chrismated by Metropolitan Anthony in London — and was given the name Margarita. She was one of the founding members of the tiny St. Nicholas church and served as its treasurer and then its starosta until 1989. In December 2000 she received a certificate of appreciation from Patriarch Alexis II for the work she had done for the church.

Margot Muntz with Fr. Alexis and other members of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam

Margot Muntz with Fr. Alexis and other members of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

Margot kept her mind alert by reading. She loved books and had a small but very fine library. Poetry, novels, travel books — she spent a lot of time and money at the Martyrium on the Roelof Hartplein. Many of us have stories about Margot’s love of theatre — going to the ballet with her, to the opera, to museum exhibitions. She was filled with enthusiasm, sometimes. It was hard to keep her on the ground. But she also had a sharply-honed critical faculty, and if she didn’t like something she’d say so.

But what interested Margot the most, I think — more than books, more than museums and the ballet, more than art and the theatre — were people. She was simply fascinated by people. She loved nothing more than to sit down and talk to someone. She had an interesting way of carrying on a conversation. It was almost as if she had organized the questions in her mind. She would tick off the questions she wanted to ask one by one – how is your work, how are the children, how are your parents? At a certain point the conversation would develop a life of its own, but she had a wonderful way of getting it started.

Another important element in Margot’s life was the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, of which she was president from its founding in Holland in 1988 until a year before her death. She may also qualify as the most careful and dedicated reader of the OPF’s quaterly journal, In Communion. Soon after each issue appeared, we could always anticipate a phone call from Margot in which she would comment on each article, then make suggestions for the next issue.

And she never complained — not until the very end. She was a person full of joy. I remember her saying to me, “I can’t help it. I’m just joyful. That’s the way the Good Lord made me.” Once we were talking about a person who had had a particularly hard life, and she said to me, “How blessed we are. We have had such good lives and we have nothing to complain about.” And I thought, “Margot! You lost your dear husband after only 18 years of marriage. You weren’t able to have children. And you have nothing to complain about?” But she never did. She saw herself as enormously blessed.

Let me say one personal thing. For me, Margot is an example of a real Christian woman. She was not what I would call an effusively religious woman. That is, she didn’t act like she was a member of an exclusive club, the Christian Club. She just acted like a Christian. And there’s a big difference. She was the very picture of hospitality. We first met Margot back in 1988 at a special church event at the old Parochiehuis on the Kloveniersburgwal, and if it hadn’t been for her warm welcome I really wonder if we would have been so eager to start coming to the St. Nicholas church. But we did. In her life, she was what we are all called to be — people who are really on the lookout for strangers, ready to welcome them, to ask them where they come from, to let them know that we’re glad they’re with us. How many of us can remember being new in the church, and having Margot come up to them with her bright smile? How many of us have stories of talking to Margot, of her showing real care for us. She was exceptionally good at that, and most of us are not. We have so much to learn. But thank God for her example. And thank God for blessing us with her life and her goodness — and her joy.