Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel joined elderly Holocaust survivors on Monday to mark the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s two decades of preserving the memory of the millions of people who died at the hands of the Nazis.

Wiesel, himself a Holocaust survivor, and Clinton honored 834 survivors attending the event, along with 130 U.S. military veterans.

More than 2,000 people packed a temporary structure erected behind the red brick museum near the National Mall in Washington. The tribute began with the presentation of the flags of U.S. Army divisions that liberated Germany at the end of World War II.

Wiesel, who played an instrumental role in founding the museum, noted the advanced ages of the survivors and veterans and said it soon will be up to younger generations to carry their memory forward.

“Whatever we are trying to do here, you are now the flag-bearers. Our memory will have to live in yours,” Wiesel said. “We believe that because we opened up the gates of our memory, we are bringing people closer together.”

The museum has been one of Washington’s most visited sites since it opened in 1993. More than one third of the museum’s more than 35 million visitors were schoolchildren, and 12 per cent of guests were from outside the United States.

The museum stands only a few hundred meters from the White House, the Washington Monument and other landmarks that, Clinton said, represent democracy and American values such as valor and strength, while the Holocaust Museum embodies the country’s conscience.

Clinton remembered the opening of the museum 20 years ago, with war raging in the Balkans as Yugoslavia broke apart, revisiting ethnic massacres on the European continent.

At the dedication ceremony, Wiesel took Clinton aside and told him in “very eloquent language” to “get off of my rear end and do something about Bosnia,” the former president recalled.

Soon afterward, Clinton sent an emissary to the region to explore peace talks in what he said was a “drive by Jews of conscience to save the lives of European Muslims.”

Clinton pointed out that recent advanced in genomics have shown that human beings are 99.5 per cent the same genetically, yet people place too much emphasis on the 0.5 per per cent of differences, making humanity “vulnerable to the sickness that the Nazis gave to the Germans.”

“That sickness is very alive,” Clinton warned, “all across the world today.”