WASHINGTON (Apr. 22)
Thousands gathered here Thursday under blustery, rainy skies to dedicate the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which President Clinton said would “bind one of the darkest lessons in history to the hopeful soul of America.”
Holocaust survivors joined Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Israeli President Chaim Herzog and a number of European heads of state in a solemn, moving ceremony on the grounds of the museum, an American memorial to the horrors of the Nazi era that will open to the public Monday.
Clinton, Gore, Herzog and the other speakers sat on a raised dais just outside the museum’s front doors, as a row of military flags behind them flapped stiffly in the breeze. Below the dais was written the phrase, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
In his remarks, Clinton recalled the suffering inflicted on European Jews during the Nazi era.
“They who were among their nation’s most patriotic citizens, whose extinction served no military purpose nor offered any political gain, they who threatened no one, were slaughtered by an efficient, unrelenting bureaucracy, dedicated solely to a radical evil with a curiously antiseptic title, the Final Solution,” the president said.
He was but one of a variety of speakers who addressed the crowd by evoking bleak memories of the concentration camps and more hopeful recollections of those who helped shelter or liberate Holocaust victims.
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, the founding chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which built the museum, included in his speech a passionate plea that more be done to help the people currently suffering in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country,” Wiesel said.
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Clinton, too, mentioned Bosnia, along with other violent parts of the world, as examples of what can happen when hatred triumphs.
“Ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia,” he said, “is but the most brutal and blatant and ever-present manifestation of what we see also with the oppression of the Kurds in Iraq, the abusive treatment of the Bahai in Iran, the endless race-based violence in South Africa.”
“We must find in our diversity our common humanity,” the president said.
The ceremony was memorable for the number of foreign heads of state and other dignitaries present to honor the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. Also present were members of Congress and Jewish community leaders.
The foreign dignitaries attending the ceremony included leaders of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
As the leaders were introduced, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman received some boos from the audience.
The museum’s decision to invite Tudjman to the dedication created controversy this week, because the Croatian leader has written a book questioning the existence of the Holocaust and made anti-Semitic remarks in public.
But a spokeswoman for the museum suggested Wednesday that Tudjman might learn something by taking a tour of the museum.
“We are not opening the museum to preach to the choir,” said Naomi Paiss, director of communications. She added that someone like Tudjman perhaps “needs education” on the subject of the Holocaust more than others, and that such educating was one of the museum’s purposes.
The European leaders receiving the greatest rounds of applause were Czech President Vaclav Havel and Polish President Lech Walesa.
The only foreign leader to speak, and to sit on the podium, was Herzog. He told the crowd of his experiences as a soldier in the British Army during World War II, when he was in the first Allied division to cross Germany’s western border.
“To one who has seen anything of the Holocaust, even marginally,” Herzog said, “it ceases to be an abstract concept and becomes a searing actuality never to be forgotten.”
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Vice President Gore, in his remarks, said that the Holocaust raises questions that are almost impossible to contemplate.
“We are reduced to a silence filled with the infinite pool of feeling that has created all the words for humility, heartbreak, helplessness and hope in all the languages of the world,” he said.
One happier note was struck when Stephania and Josef Burzminski told their story. Stephania, a Polish woman, hid 13 Jews, including Josef, during the war. All 13 were saved, and after the war, Stephania and Josef were married.
ABC News anchor Ted Koppel, the son of refugees from the Holocaust, served as master of ceremonies for the event.
He read from CBS News pioneer Edward Murrow’s “Broadcast From Buchenwald,” describing the horrors of the newly liberated concentration camp.
Holocaust Memorial Council Vice Chairman William Lowenberg, a survivor of Dachau, presented Dachau liberator Robert Jecklin with a photograph of his own family, to commemorate the generations that were saved. The two men embraced on the podium.
Toward the end of the ceremony, Clinton, Wiesel and Holocaust Memorial Council Chairman Harvey Meyerhoff joined in lighting an eternal flame, following which there was a moment of silence.
The ceremony was marred not only by the inclement weather but by a protest against the museum’s creation, staged just outside the area where the dedication was taking place.
Throughout the ceremony, the audience could hear protesters chanting and calling out over a loudspeaker such epithets as “We don’t buy the Holocaust lie” and “ADL go to hell.”
The few dozen demonstrators carried signs with slogans reading “160 million German Americans demand the truth,” and “America … Jews are your enemies … Cockroaches and parasites … Wake up America.”