WASHINGTON - Elderly survivors of the Holocaust and the veterans who helped liberate them gathered for what could be their last big reunion Monday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One thousand survivors and World War II vets joined with former President Bill Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust activist Elie Wiesel to mark the museum's 20th anniversary. Organizers chose not to wait for the 25th milestone because many survivors and vets may not be alive in another five or 10 years.
"We felt it was important, while that generation is still with us in fairly substantial numbers, to bring them together," said Museum Director Sara Bloomfield.
Washington has many monuments and memorials that offer something special for visitors from around the world, "but the Holocaust memorial will be our conscience," Clinton said.
Since the museum opened 20 years ago, the world has made huge scientific discoveries, including the sequencing of the human genome, which proved humans are 99.5 percent genetically the same, Clinton said.
"Every non-age-related difference . . . is contained in one half of 1 percent of our genetic makeup, but every one of us spends too much time on that half a percent," Clinton said. "That makes us vulnerable to the fever, the sickness that the Nazis gave to the Germans. That sickness is very alive across the world today."
The occasion marked a reunion of sorts for Clinton and Wiesel as well: Both were on hand to dedicate the museum at its opening in 1993. On Sunday night, the museum presented its highest honor to World War II veterans who helped end the Holocaust. Susan Eisenhower accepted the award on behalf of her grandfather, U.S. Gen. 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 aims to 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.
Bloomfield said organizers wanted to show Holocaust survivors, veterans and rescuers that the effort will continue to honor the memory of 6 million murdered Jews, in part by working to prevent genocide in the future.
Vera Greenwood, who was born in Berlin and remembers as a girl seeing Hitler with Nazis marching in the street, said her father knew they had to leave when he was forced out of his job as a lawyer. She remembers Nazi officers coming to their house and taking her father's books.
"Though I was very young, I knew something was very wrong," said Greenwood, now 84. "I still feel we were very lucky to survive."
Her family moved to Palestine with a British visa and ended up fighting for Israel's independence. Greenwood lived in Israel for 30 years before immigrating to the U.S. and completing a doctorate at Arizona State University.
She and her husband, Fred, who survived the Holocaust in Holland as a child by being hidden and passed from house to house, wanted to be part of the last large reunion of survivors.
"In 10 more years, most of us will be gone," Greenwood said.
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.