Standing together and ignoring the rainy, chilly weather of an April morning in 1993, recently inaugurated President Bill Clinton joined Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel to officially open the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Fittingly, rain fell again on Monday when the two joined more than 800 Holocaust survivors, nearly 150 World War II veterans and thousands of other guests to celebrate the museum’s 20th anniversary while acknowledging its continuing efforts to combat prejudice and violence.
“Here, we are committed to truth, painful truth,” Wiesel said.
Reflecting on that morning two decades ago, Wiesel spoke of how his prepared speech became wet and illegible due to the rain and he was forced to improvise his remarks instead. Having just returned from the former Yugoslavia, he beseeched Clinton to look into the racially and religiously motivated violence that was spreading in that region.
“He looked at me and said I needed to get off my rear end and do something about Bosnia,” Clinton said.
The morning ceremony, which opened with the presentation of the colors of the Army groups that participated in the liberation of concentration camps, was a chance for Clinton and Wiesel to talk about what they saw as the museum’s mission and purpose, both now and in the future. Speaking out about what happened in the Holocaust and taking action against similar horrors defines the museum, both speakers said.
“We cannot not say what is in our heart,” Wiesel said.
Sarah Bloomfield, director of the museum, said the anniversary worked to “celebrate the enduring continuity of our cause.”
In his speech, Clinton discussed how the museum’s place on the mall with so many other memorials showed how special its purpose was among the other landmarks.
“They all give something to our country and to visitors from around the world who come here. But the Holocaust Memorial will be our conscience. It will be here as our conscience for now, forever,” Clinton said.
After calling the Human Genome Project arguably the greatest scientific accomplishment, Clinton said the fact that all of humanity is 99.5 percent identical makes the focus on differences as an excuse for hatred that much worse.
“Every one of us spends too much time on that half a percent,” Clinton said. The Holocaust, he said, “reflects a human disease that takes different forms, the idea that our differences are more important than our common humanity.”
Although a diverse crowd attended Monday’s celebration, the programming made an effort to particularly honor the attending survivors and veterans and their families. During lunch, tables were marked with the names of different concentration camps and theaters of operation as a way of encouraging reunions among people who may not have seen each other for years or decades.
“It brings together perhaps one of the final gatherings of this nature,” said Steven Luckert, curator of the museum’s permanent exhibitions. “It’s a remarkable tribute to the survivors and veterans of World War II.”
After the ceremony, visitors took part in lectures, panel discussions and tours on topics such as the role of technology in propaganda and the ways in which so many groups failed to prevent the Holocaust. At a panel on the memory of the Holocaust in Europe today, representatives from Poland, France and Germany talked about how their countries work to memorialize and educate people about the Holocaust in efforts to prevent anything like it from happening again.
“Europe remembers because it must remember,” said Bogdan Zdrojewskim, the Polish minister of culture and national heritage.
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere spoke of one of the main ways Germany memorializes the victims of the Holocaust, with raised stumbling blocks in front of former homes of those taken by the Nazis that mark what happened there. He also spoke of the importance of Germany’s alliance with Israel, referring to it as the “raison d’etre” of Germany.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise, many speakers acknowledged, and sectarian violence of all kinds continues to be of critical concern all over the world.
“These are issues we have to confront,” Luckert said. “We learn from the past in order to change the future.”
The museum has a unique role to play in fighting that kind of prejudice and violence, Clinton said.
“You know the truth, you have enshrined it here,” he said.
One of the more poignant events of the day took place in the museum’s Hall of Remembrance, where people read lists of names of those lost in the Holocaust or in the war. Some read names of those they had known or read from lists the museum provided.
“It was really moving,” said one listener, who said she was the daughter of a survivor. “I remember [my father] telling me about all the people he knew who died. I think this really honors their memory.”
The day’s events were part of a larger set of anniversary activities, including a dinner to honor survivors and veterans Sunday evening. Organizers played a video message from President Barack Obama with his own congratulations and commendation of the museum’s work.
The museum has “always served as our promise that your stories will continue to be told,” Obama said.
The evening featured the presentation of two Elie Wiesel Awards: one to Susan Eisenhower, President Dwight Eisenhower’s granddaughter, on behalf of all WWII veterans; and to Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, on behalf of all of the people who worked to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Eisenhower served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Bartoszewski helped save thousands of Jews in Poland, when, after spending a year in Auschwitz, he joined Zegota, the Council to Aid Jews, which helped hide and protect Jews in Poland from the Nazis.
Nearly all of the speakers and panelists on Monday talked about how important it is to educate new generations, imparting to them the stories and lessons of the Holocaust and how they apply today. Millions of school-age children have visited the museum, which also runs a varied educational outreach program with an education corps and funding for research and academic work on the Holocaust.
“You are now the flag bearers,” Wiesel said, speaking to the younger generations in the audience. “I wish you many years of discovery and of being true to your calling and worthy of the moment we are just living.”
Eric Hal Schwartz writes for the JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.