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At 20 Years, Holocaust Museum Ensures a Record Survives When Direct Memory Fades

April 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
More than 800 Holocaust survivors and 100 military veterans who helped liberate Europe gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Ray Suarez reports.
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GWEN IFILL: In Washington today, a group of Holocaust survivors returned to the capital for a day of remembrance, reminding younger generations of past horrors and of future challenges.

Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: Under a steady rain, thousands of came to mark the 20th anniversary of the dedication of a museum built as a constant reminder of one of history’s greatest crimes, Nazi Germany’s murder of six million Jews.

MAN: Time is an all-important factor in the thinking and planning of mankind.

RAY SUAREZ: Between 1933 and 1945, Adolf Hitler led Germany and its collaborators first to systematically persecute, then attempt to eliminate European Jewry.

Today’s ceremony brought together more than 800 Holocaust survivors and more than 100 military veterans who took part in liberating Europe and the death camps. But there probably won’t be too many more gatherings like this one. It’s almost 70 years since V.E. Day. Even those who were liberated as children are in their 80s and ’90s.

Natalie Gonenn-Rendler is one of those child survivors from Poland. She recounted what she remembers seeing she was just three years old.

NATALIE GONENN-RENDLER, Holocaust Survivor: A little baby was crying. And the German yelled in German, “Stop the baby from crying.” That’s what he yelled, you know? How do you make a baby stop crying. She couldn’t stop the baby from crying. He grabbed the baby, sat the little baby down. It was a fence around it, too, yes, a spiky fence. The blood was gushing all over. That’s what I saw at three years old.

RAY SUAREZ: It was on another rainy, windy day in 1993 that President Bill Clinton and Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel dedicated the nation’s Holocaust Memorial Museum.

ELIE WIESEL, Nobel Laureate: For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: This museum is not for the dead alone, nor even for the survivors who have been so beautifully represented. It is perhaps most of all for those of us who were not there at all, to learn the lessons, to deepen our memories and our humanity, and to transmit these lessons from generation to generation.

RAY SUAREZ: Now 20 years later, under a massive tent, the same two men called on the world to prevent future genocides from happening.

ELIE WIESEL: You are now the flag bearers. It’s in your memory that inherits ours. Our memory will live in yours. Remember that, young people, that now you have an ideal, not only an idea, but ideal, the ideal of saving whatever the past has to offer for the future, and its heroes and also its victims.

FORMER PRESIDENT CLINTON: Make sure that as direct memories fade away, that the records, the pictures, and the stories never die, to make sure that we will always be able to come here to remind us that no matter how smart a people are, if you have a head without a heart, you are not human.

RAY SUAREZ: The museum has seen more than 35 million people pass through its doors since it opened just off the National Mall. It’s full of audio and video testimonials from survivors, a model of the gas chamber at Auschwitz, artifacts from victims’ lives, like the stack of shoes they took off before being put to death in the gas chambers, and the faces of those who were killed in Hitler’s genocide.

The museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield, said the museum’s core mission is to educate, but it’s also about helping prevent future genocides.

SARA BLOOMFIELD, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: Evil is not an eradicable disease. It will be here forever. Human beings will face future genocides. And our responsibility is to do for future victims of genocide what the world failed to do for the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and ’40s.

RAY SUAREZ: Ninety-two-year-old Henry Hirschmann is both survivor and a veteran. He fled to America from Germany as a teenager and ended up going back as a young G.I., where he walked through the barracks at Dachau. Now he tells his story to schoolchildren.

HENRY HIRSCHMANN, Holocaust Survivor: We’re talking about history. And I constantly hope — and something that I told my two children as they were growing up, I said, can’t you love one another? It’s a lot easier than hate. And if that transformed itself to the people in this world to love one another, I think it would become a better world.

RAY SUAREZ: There are other Holocaust memorials and museums around the world, like Israel’s Yad Vashem and Berlin’s memorial built in 2004.

And just last week, Canada announced plans to build a memorial in Ottawa, the only former Allied nation without one.

GWEN IFILL: You can watch videos from today’s ceremony online, including speeches from President Clinton and Elie Wiesel. Find those on our YouTube page.