Steen Metz puts on a brave face when he recalls his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Edith Hendel must wipe away her tears.
The two Holocaust survivors grew up in different countries and now live eight states from one another, but their stories are part of the shared experiences of more than 800 others who took part Monday in what might be one of the last gatherings of such a large group of survivors to honor the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
"It's very emotional and everything is coming back," said Ms. Hendel, 83, who was forced as a teenager from her home in Budapest and taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
As tears fell freely down her cheeks, Ms. Hendel said that despite the difficulty it takes to participate in an event like the anniversary ceremony, "I want to be a part of it."
"There are very little survivors," she said in a voice still thickly accented. "We're all dying out."
Tom A. Bernstein, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said 843 survivors took part in Monday's ceremony along with 130 World War II veterans, some of whom helped to liberate concentration camp prisoners. An estimated 6 million Jews in the 1930s and 1940s died in the Nazi campaign in which Adolf Hitler ordered European Jews to concentration camps where they were systematically killed in gas chambers, poison showers or under the stress of disease and fatigue.
"What the museum stands for — and what many of you know firsthand — is the fragility of freedom and the courage and sacrifice necessary to preserve it," Mr. Bernstein said.
The museum occupies a brick and glass building along 14th Street in Southwest and is home to an extensive collection of photographs, videos and artifacts. Officials recently announced a $540 million fundraising campaign to assist them in securing artifacts and conducting research on genocide specifically related to the Holocaust. About half of the funding has been raised.
The museum itself also has been the site of bloodshed. In June 2009, an 89-year-old white supremacist walked into the building and fatally shot museum guard Stephen T. Johns.
Monday's ceremony, however, focused on the 20th anniversary milestone for the memorial collection.
"We have all these wonderful monuments here," said former President Bill Clinton, who helped dedicate the museum in 1993. "The Holocaust Museum will be here as our conscience."
For Mr. Metz, 77, who splits his time between Sanibel, Fla., and Lincolnshire, Ill., the museum and memorial events such as the one Monday give him the opportunity to talk about something not always easy to discuss. He was 8 years old when he was forced into a cattle car and taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
"Like many survivors, I didn't talk about it — or it was very little," he said. "I didn't know what was going on. We were different, but we were not different. We were different in Hitler's eyes."
Mr. Metz said it took him several decades before he could face what happened to him and his family, and that was only after he wrote his memoirs about eight years ago and most of the book focused on his experience in the camp. He said he visited the museum several years after it opened, and the anniversary was another opportunity to share his story and hear about the lives of others.
"It's very, very moving. We are all different, even people from the same camp," he said. "It's really nice to talk to other survivors. We are survivors, but not by choice."
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