Elderly survivors of the Holocaust and the veterans who helped liberate them are gathering for what could be their last big reunion at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Some 1,000 survivors and World War II veterans are coming together with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust activist and writer, on Monday when the museum marks its 20th anniversary. Organizers chose not to wait for the 25th milestone because many survivors and veterans may not be alive in another five years.
Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wiesel, who both dedicated the museum at its opening in 1993, will deliver keynote speeches. On Sunday night, the museum presented its highest honor to World War II veterans who ended the Holocaust. Susan Eisenhower accepted the award on behalf of her grandfather, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and all veterans of the era.
The museum also launched a campaign to raise $540 million by 2018 to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to combat anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and contemporary genocide. It has already secured gifts totaling $258.7 million. The campaign will double the size of the museum's endowment by its 25th anniversary. Also, a $15 million gift from Holocaust survivors David and Fela Shapell will help build a new Collections and Conservation Center.
Museum Director Sara Bloomfield said organizers wanted to recommit to Holocaust survivors, veterans and rescuers that the effort will continue to honor the memory of 6 million murdered Jews. They do that by saving lives and preventing genocide in the future.
"We felt it was important, while that generation is still with us in fairly substantial numbers, to bring them together," Bloomfield said, "to not only honor them, but in their presence make a commitment to them that not only this institution but the people we reach will carry forward this legacy."
The museum continues collecting objects, photographs and other evidence of the Holocaust from survivors, veterans and archives located as far away as China and Argentina. Curators expect the collection to double in size over the next decade.
This week, the museum is opening a special, long-term exhibition entitled "Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity During the Holocaust." It includes interviews with perpetrators that have never been shown before, as well as details of mass killings in the former Soviet Union that were only uncovered in more recent years.
Curator Susan Bachrach said the exhibit and its research challenge the idea that the Holocaust was primarily about Hitler and other Nazi leaders. Surveys at the museum show that's what most visitors believe.
"That's very comforting to people, because it puts distance between the visitors and who was involved," Bachrach said. So, the museum set out to look at ordinary people who looked on and were complicit in the killing and persecution of millions of Jews through greed, a desire for career advancement, peer pressure or other factors. It examines influences "beyond hatred and anti-Semitism," Bachrach said.
Focusing only on fanatical Nazis would be a serious misunderstanding of the Holocaust, Bloomfield said. "The Holocaust wouldn't have been possible, first of all, without enormous indifference throughout Germany and German-occupied Europe, but also thousands of people who were, say, just doing their jobs," she said, such as a tax official who collected special taxes levied against Jews.
In an opening film, some survivors recall being turned over to Nazi authorities in front of witnesses who did nothing. "The whole town was assembled ... looking at the Jews leaving," one survivor recalls.
Steven Fenves was a boy at the time. He recalled how in 1944, Hungary, allied with Nazi Germany, forced his family out of their apartment. The family was deported to Auschwitz, where Fenves' mother was gassed.
"One of the nastiest memories I have is getting going on that journey and people were lined up, up the stairs, up to the door of the apartment, waiting to ransack whatever we left behind, cursing at us, yelling at us, spitting at us as we left," he said in an interview with the museum.
The museum located images of bystanders looking on as Jews were detained, humiliated and taken away.
Non-Jews were also punished for violating German policies against mixing of ethnic groups. For the first time, the museum is showing striking, rare footage of a ritualistic shaming of a Polish girl and a German boy being punished for having a relationship. They are marched through the streets of a town in present-day Poland, where the film was located more recently in an attic.
Dozens of people look on as Nazi officers cut the hair of the two teenagers. They are forced to look at their nearly bald heads in a mirror before their hair is burned.
"It's hard not to focus on the cruelty that's being perpetrated on this young couple," Bachrach said "But we really want people to look at ... is all the other people who are standing around watching this."
Other items displayed include dozens of bullets excavated from the site of a mass grave in former Soviet territory and registration cards from city offices in Western and Southern Europe labeling people with a "J" for Jew.
The federally funded museum's theme for its 20th anniversary is "Never Again: What You Do Matters." The museum devotes part of its work and research to preventing current and future genocides. A study released by the museum last month found that the longer the current conflict in Syria continues, the greater the danger that mass sectarian violence results in genocide.
Much more is still being learned about the Holocaust, as well, Bloomfield said. The museum is compiling an encyclopedia of all incarceration sites throughout Europe. When the project began, scholars expected to list 10,000 such sites. Now the number stands at 42,000.
The museum opened in 1993 as a living memorial to the Holocaust to inspire people worldwide to prevent genocide, following a presidential commission that called for such a museum in 1979. Since opening, it has counted more than 30 million visitors. The museum also provides resources for survivors. It has partnered with Ancestry.com to begin making the museum's 170 million documents searchable online through the World Memory Project.
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