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On National Mall, a Gathering of Guardians of Shoah Memory

“Remember, fellow survivors, when we emerged from the ghettos and the forests and the death camps, hopelessly determined to invoke hope and tell the tales, few were willing to listen. Survivors were understood by survivors alone. They spoke in code. Those who were not there will never know what it meant being there. All outsiders could do was to come close to the gates; those who were not in Auschwitz will never enter Auschwitz.”

Elie Wiesel spoke these words beside the Western Wall in Jerusalem more than 22 years ago, on June 18, 1981, at the concluding ceremony of the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. That was the first large-scale reunion of those who had experienced the Shoah. Many of us, their sons and daughters, came with them. We witnessed their rejoicing in seeing one another, all the while remembering.

Today, the survivors remain the guardians of their memories, of their legacy, except that now their voices are being listened to more and more. This past weekend, they met again, more than 2,000 of them, accompanied by their children and grandchildren, some 7,000 persons in all. The venue was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the occasion, a tribute by the museum to the survivors. At a pivotal moment of transition, the survivors were reassured that their history, their past and, yes, the remembrance of their dead would be preserved and protected within the museum’s walls.

“My generation lives at a vital time,” Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, told them Sunday. “On one side of us are the inspiring examples of survivors and the enduring memory of those who perished. On the other side are generations upon generations who must remember the Holocaust or be at risk of repeating it…. We pledge ourselves and our successors to uphold the torch of remembrance and accept with a sense of privilege the legacy we have been bequeathed: To participate in whatever ways we can — individual by individual — in the effort to repair our world.”

Walking among survivors is always a unique, uplifting experience. Each time we hear stories we have not heard before: experiences from the ghettos, nightmares from the death camps, reminiscences of chance encounters, humor and bittersweet melodies still echoing out of the postwar displaced persons camps.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the sons and daughters of the survivors share similar poignant moments: “My father told me that he and your father…” Sometimes the revelations come from strangers. A man who had been a child in Bergen-Belsen said to me, “Did you know that your mother saved my life?” And then we learn, a generation removed, hitherto unrevealed insights into our parents’ lives.

Last weekend, however, was different from previous gatherings. In the past — Jerusalem in 1981, Washington in 1983, Philadelphia in 1985, New York in 1986 — the survivors themselves, led by Benjamin Meed, Sam Bloch and Roman Kent, among others, had been the organizers. This time, a federal institution opened its doors, in the words of the museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield, “to those whose lives we honor.”

For the first time, the survivors were guests rather than hosts. They did not have to worry about logistics or programming. Most importantly, they did not have to justify themselves to anyone. They were made to feel that their existences, their memories, mattered.

The museum’s staff and volunteers made the survivors feel not only welcome, but also special. And the survivors, in turn, had a profound effect on the museum’s staff. On Monday, the museum’s associate director, Alice Greenwald, said that she had never seen morale at the museum so high. The men and women who work daily with the imagery and artifacts of destruction had been reinvigorated by getting to know, even if only for a few hours, those for whom the Holocaust must forever be a reality.

“We can now sense the achievements of our generation taking hold in this museum and in other institutions across the country,” Meed said. “Our collective presence reminds these institutions of their commitment to remembrance. If they are to speak in our names, they must respect our experience, respect both its Jewishness and its universality.”

Far too often the Shoah is perceived as the domain of the dead — as if they alone experienced its horrors. The survivors suffered no less, and their anguish continued far longer.

But the survivors are also the embodiment, the shadows and reflections, of those who perished. They are what, but for fate, those who were annihilated would have become. Not ghosts or two-dimensional stereotypes, but loving, interactive, outspoken men and women. The sound reverberating through the two enormous tents set up across the street from the museum was a blend of laughter, tales and, yes, nostalgia. Sadness and mourning are part of the survivors’ collective persona, but not the defining element.

The most striking aspect of the weekend was its tone. The mood was one of fulfillment. A sense of energy, purpose and vitality permeated the multigenerational visits to the museum’s permanent exhibition and special exhibits on Anne Frank and the hidden children, workshops where grandchildren interviewed their grandparents, panels at which survivors such as Adam Boren and Joseph Tenenbaum talked about writing their memoirs, tables identified by the names of camps and ghettos at which survivors ate together and reminisced, and the joyous closing concert of Yiddish music.

Individually, each survivor may feel lonely, but together they form a vibrant community. And their families, their children and grandchildren are an integral part of that community, which speaks to the future and the continuity of their hopes and dreams.

For some sons and daughters of survivors, this gathering was also bittersweet, even painful. My father died 28 years ago, but I had gone to the previous gatherings in Jerusalem, Washington, Philadelphia and New York with my mother. Now both my parents are dead, and I was there on their behalf as well as my own.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, reminded us that because antisemitism is alive and prospering, the survivors’ legacy to future generations must become “one that inspires leadership and action, that demands accountability from all the denizens of this small planet to refuse to tolerate intolerance.”

That, of course, must be the essence of our mission. Neither the survivors, nor especially we, their children and grandchildren, have the right to spend our time and energies talking only to ourselves about ourselves.

By coming together, Elie Wiesel told the thousands assembled at the museum on Sunday afternoon that they had prevailed over forgetfulness: “Surrounded by your children and grandchildren, fellow survivors, do you feel joy in your hearts? If so, it is not void of sadness; it cannot be. And yet, and yet. Close your eyes and see the invisible faces of those we have left behind or who have left us behind as witnesses. Our presence here today is our answer to their silent question. We have kept our promise. We have not forgotten.”

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