Allegra Tevet, like so many others, could not take the strange, hot, fall-afternoon sun this past Sunday.
So my 81-year-old mother-in-law sat in the shade of a cavernous white tent as she looked up at a big video screen at Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel speaking from the plaza outside of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
He was addressing thousands, but it was as if he was speaking to directly her. For that is how Wiesel speaks: slowly, deeply, directly to each Holocaust survivor. His sadness, his passion, his honesty is their voice.
His speech was the culmination of a two-day celebration of the museum’s 10th anniversary, which brought together some 7,000 people from three dozen states, including more than 2,300 survivors. It was one of the largest assemblages of Holocaust survivors in decades.
In the air as Wiesel spoke, his back to the museum’s western wall, there was a palpable feeling that the Jewish world is at a turning point.
Clearly the Holocaust survivors still among us are aging. Their step has slowed. Their hearing has weakened. This fall weekend at the museum was an acknowledgement of time’s passage. Never again will there be an event quite like this. As on any brilliant fall day, sadness was in the air.
And yet there was also warmth. It radiated from the hundreds of families who had gathered. It also emanated from the universal recognition of the many accomplishments achieved during the first decade of the museum, which has welcomed 20 million visitors, including 73 heads of state.
For the survivors, though, it was also once again a time to take comfort from one another.
Survivors’ children and grandchildren wanted this weekend to be a public tribute to the patriarchs and matriarchs of their families. They also wanted to gently mark an important transition.
“We now pass the torch to our children and their children,” said Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, speaking at a ceremonial dinner Saturday night. “We do so with hope, resolve and love,” he added.
Miles Lerman, chairman emeritus of the memorial council, said that survivors’ “children will accept this torch and carry it for time immemorial.”
My mother-in-law, who came all the way from Portland, Ore., for the gathering, knew what they were talking about.
She was surrounded by six of her seven grandchildren, who had flown in from Chicago, Dallas, Portland and Syracuse, N.Y., to spend the weekend in Washington with her. The seventh grandchild closely followed the gathering from Israel, where he is studying for the year.
The youngest of Allegra’s grandchildren are about the age Allegra was when she and her entire family were seized by the Nazis in northern Greece. The oldest are about the age she was when she was liberated from Auschwitz, one of the few thousand Greek Jews to make it through the horrors of the Holocaust.
The subsequent 58 years were dedicated to building a family. She and the man she would marry, Albert, moved from Greece to Portland in 1952, opened a service station and established themselves in their community. A state governor became a patron and a friend.
Still, there were barriers that were hard to overcome. When children asked about the blue-green numbers tattooed on her arm, Allegra thought it best to say it was her social-security or telephone number.
“An invisible wall separated survivors,” Wiesel said in his remarks. Survivors were admonished: “Don’t look backward. Turn the page.”
Sunday was another story.
More than 2,300 survivors sat in the autumn sun for all the world to see.
Reporters scrambled about, scribbling notes, while photographers posed their subjects. Theirs was a near-frantic endeavor, an attempt to locate and record the most dramatic of stories, the darkest of experiences — to somehow capture the day.
There were 2,300 survivors, 2,300 life stories worthy of the world’s attention.
But in six decades, world culture has identified and elevated for posterity just one Wiesel. One Frank. One Primo Levi.
That is why the Holocaust Memorial Museum has taken on such importance in the lives of the survivors. It is their journal. It enshrines the story of lives like theirs, portrays the forces once powerfully arrayed against them, details the tragedies that befell families and communities, and points to the lessons they would have the world learn.
Ultimately, however, it will be each survivor’s family that will carefully and tenderly craft his or her legacy.
And that is why my focus lingered on Allegra.
All weekend long, she did not talk much. She didn’t have to. By now, her grandchildren knew the broad outlines of her story. They had lived their entire lives in the glow of her intense, joyful love.
In their own way, they have begun to pick up the torch. The previous weekend, one of her granddaughters introduced Wiesel to a group of students at Northwestern University. Last spring the same granddaughter helped organize the Holocaust remembrance program for Yom Hashoah on campus. As high-school students, three grandchildren participated in the March of the Living, traveling to Poland where they retraced the steps their grandmother took at Auschwitz a lifetime ago.
It was natural that Allegra Tevet’s grandchildren would want to be with her on this day as she — along with thousands of other survivors — affirmed by their presence the transcendent importance of the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the work it does.
Martin Rosenberg is a writer based in Overland Park, Kan.
Martin Rosenberg, a Kansas writer, is an occasional contributor to the Forward.