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For Aging Survivors of the Holocaust, the Future Means Remembering the Past

November 6, 2003
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Helen Potash stood in front of a cattle car at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition, but she would not venture forward.

“I went through it once,” the Holocaust survivor said. “I am not going again.”

She went around it instead.

Potash was one of more than 2,200 Holocaust survivors who came to Washington this weekend for a reunion, part of a yearlong marking of the museum’s 10th anniversary.

There have been Holocaust survivor reunions before, but this gathering focused more on the future than the past. The survivors here spoke candidly about their advancing age and said they looked to their heirs to tell their stories.

More than 4,000 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren joined the survivors on the unusually warm November afternoon, learning about their family members’ experiences and pledging to keep the memory alive.

“It’s an incredible lineage we all share,” said Helen Burstin, of Washington, who came with her parents, both survivors. “It’s a remarkable thing to walk into this tent and see 6,000 people connected to survivors.”

At times the event resembled a wedding, with survivors and their families dancing the Hora to Israeli folk music in an enormous tent nicknamed “Survivor’s Village.” Later, there was a sing-along in Yiddish.

“It’s totally overwhelming,” said Rabbi Jay Miller of San Mateo, Calif., watching the dancing from the sidelines. He was on vacation in Washington and happened to find himself amid the festivities. He was one of the few in the tent whose family had not been directly affected by the Holocaust.

“The smiles on people’s faces are an expression of vitality and commitment to life,” said Miller. “I wish there was a way I could translate this to people when I go home.”

In one room, survivors offered their artifacts to the museum; others related oral histories into tape recorders and to transcribers. Images from the museum’s database flittered across a bank of computer monitors. Survivors researching the fate of their families used the computers; alongside each terminal stood a box of tissues.

Joan Weiss of Marlboro, N.J. brought her 18-year-old daughter to the reunion, even though her father, who survived the Holocaust, did not make the trip to Washington.

“This is something I have waited for all my life,” she said in the archive room. “I’ve been waiting for something special, to find someone who knew my parents or a relative we didn’t know about.”

There were to be no new revelations for Weiss, just an educational experience for her daughter, Natalie.

“We shouldn’t forget it ever,” said Natalie, a high school senior. “We need to keep talking to our children.”

Many of the survivors were viewing the museum for the first time. Some said they had always longed to come here, and found the reunion a great opportunity. Other said they avoided the museum, but felt a yearning to see it at least once.

“I felt this time I had to go,” said Eddie Weinstein. “Because I am getting old.”

Weinstein wandered the tent, slowly, with a cardboard placard resting on his chest, attached to a string around his neck. It read: “I am looking for people who escaped from Treblinka.”

“I didn’t find one person,” said Weinstein, whose story of escape from the Polish extermination camp has been documented in a book, “Quenched Steel.”

Nessie Godin, a survivor from Lithuania, volunteers at the museum once a week. She says it is her responsibility to those she survived in the camps.

“I wasn’t any smarter and I wasn’t any stronger,” said Godin. “The wonderful Jewish women who held my hand, gave me hope and maybe a bite of bread, they told me that they should never be forgotten and to tell the world of this hatred.”

She said the reunion and the museum shows the world that Hitler did not win.

Burstin says that children of Holocaust survivors have obligations to their parents and their experiences.

“We want to make it clear to our kids and our kids’ kids and everyone who knows us that this is part of our heritage,” she said.

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel told the audience that amid the joy of the occasion is a void of sadness for the faces that were left behind.

“Your presence — our presence — here today is our answer to this silent question,” he said. “We have kept our promise. We have not forgotten you.”

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