WASHINGTON — Elderly Holocaust survivors, and the veterans who helped liberate them, gathered for what could be their last big reunion Monday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Nearly 1,000 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, Clinton told the crowd, "but the Holocaust memorial will be our conscience."
Since the museum opened, the world has made huge scientific discoveries, including the sequencing of the human genome, Clinton said.
"Every non age-related difference you can see in this room and across the globe, every single one 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 and the sickness that the Nazis gave to the Germans.
"And that sickness is very alive all across the world today."
The occasion marked a reunion of sorts for Clinton and Wiesel: Both were on hand to dedicate the museum at its 1993 opening. 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 federally funded 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 in its quest 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. For instance, a study released by the museum last month found the longer the Syrian conflict continues, the greater the danger that mass sectarian violence results in genocide.
The museum's theme for its 20th anniversary is "Never Again: What You Do Matters."
Vera Greenwood, who was born in Berlin and remembers 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 United States.
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, noting the museum is a way to keep their stories alive.