WASHINGTON, April 19 (JTA) President Bush stood with his wife in front of an eternal flame honoring Holocaust victims, and bowed his head.
That silent moment at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday night was followed by comments to friends, guests and survivors in the museum’s main hall. Bush called the museum “a testament to hope” and said it “bears witness to the best and to the worst of the human heart.”
Bush also urged Americans planning to visit Washington to come to the museum.
“In places like this, the evidence has been kept. Without it, we might forget the past and we might neglect the future,” he said. “The stories we have must be preserved forever.”
Bush went on a private tour of the museum for more than an hour Wednesday night, accompanied by museum officials.
The museum had invited Bush to tour the museum at any time, but he requested that the visit take place the night before the official U.S. Holocaust memorial ceremony at the Capitol rotunda Thursday.
In the rotunda, Bush told hundreds that the Holocaust is “defined as much by the courage of the
lost as by the cruelty of the guilty.”
The president urged the teaching of conscience, moral discernment, decency and tolerance to stop evil from triumphing.
“This Day of Remembrance marks more than a single historic tragedy, but 6 million important lives all the possibilities, all the dreams and all the innocence that died with them,” he said.
The rotunda event was part of the annual Days of Remembrance for the Holocaust, which has been observed since 1980.
A large gold-colored menorah stood at the front of the room, holding six candles in memory of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. A rose was affixed to one of the menorah branches in memory of the gypsies, or Roma, who also were persecuted by the Nazis.
An 11-year-old student at the Maryland School for the Deaf assisted in the candlelighting ceremony in memory of those persecuted because of disabilities. The Nazis forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, and murdered more than a quarter-million.
Holocaust survivors were paired up with Cabinet members or congressmen to light the candles. First lady Laura Bush and Hadassah Lieberman who is the daughter of survivors and the wife of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D- Conn.) also participated.
At the rotunda, Ruth Mandel, vice chair of the Holocaust Memorial Council, said the public act of memory serves a larger purpose.
“Memory alone does not suffice,” she said. “We wish to shape memory so it can serve conscience.”
Mandel noted the need to speak out today when there is still evil in the world, such as the threat of genocide in Sudan.
The crimes of the Holocaust show the world that “evil can slip in and blend in, amid the most civilized of surroundings,” President Bush said. “In the end, only conscience can stop it, and moral discernment and decency and tolerance.”
During his tour, Bush was deeply moved by the pictures on the museum’s Tower of Faces and by the exhibit on totalitarianism, according to museum director Sara Bloomfield. Bloomfield accompanied the president, along with Mandel and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, the chair of the museum council.
After seeing a children’s book from the Holocaust era that contained caricatures of Jews, the president and Bloomfield discussed the need to educate children about hate and prejudice.
The museum is planning a traveling exhibit on book burnings that took place during the Holocaust, and has asked Laura Bush an advocate for education and literacy to help plan it.
The president and first lady held hands as they stood in front of the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance. They then lit candles in memory of those who died in the concentration camps, the names of which encircle the hall.
There were two peculiar moments for the president. As he and his wife went to light the candles, photographers scrambled to get their shot, shattering the quiet and solemnity of the moment. Bush took in it stride and walked to the next part of the museum.
When he arrived at the staircase in the museum’s main hall to give his remarks, however, friends and guests cheered and applauded loudly. This time, Bush did not hold his tongue.
“This is a hallowed place,” he said. “Please behave yourself.”