WASHINGTON — Holocaust survivor Henry Greenbaum, 83, has made it his life's work to tell his story of survival to whomever is willing to listen, in order to prevent anything like it from ever happening again.
For Greenbaum, other survivors and rememberers across the world, Friday was a time of particular reflection. Jan. 27 is the United Nations-declared International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day that the Soviet Red Army liberated the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Friday marked the seventh annual day of reflection since the U.N. General Assembly designated it in 2005.
"Children and the Holocaust" was this year's theme, in memory of the 1.5 million children who didn't survive that brutal era and, as Greenbaum put it, "the lucky ones," like him, who did.
"The only way we can stop this is for us to educate, to tell our stories," Greenbaum said.
Greenbaum, who was born in Starachowice, Poland, was 13 when he was sent to perform forced labor at a munitions factory near the city's ghetto. After a foiled escape attempt that killed his sister and wounded him, the Nazis moved him from work camp to work camp; first Auschwitz, and later Flossenbuerg. Greenbaum barely avoided the horrors of many of his family members. U.S. soldiers from the 11th Armored Division liberated him at age 17 from Neunburg vorm Wald on April 25, 1945.
"A tank just appeared out of nowhere and found us," Greenbaum said Friday. "I call it my 'angel tank,' because it appeared just like that."
In observance of the day, and the atrocities that prompted it, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington hosted a ceremony that honored the victims of the genocide that killed at least 11 million people in just over a decade.
Ambassadors and diplomats from more than 40 nations joined some 30 Holocaust survivors. While the somber event took place in the museum's Remembrance Hall, the scurrying of small footsteps could be heard from below, as groups of schoolchildren fell back through time in the exhibits and, if they were lucky, heard firsthand accounts from a survivor.
One boy named Rick, from Bethesda, Md., cautiously approached Greenbaum and stuttered, "I was told you might be able to sign this," holding out a museum-issued "identification card" that bore Greenbaum's name, the pages inside outlining a summarized version of his survival story.
"I do this every day I'm here," Greenbaum confided after he signed the boy's card. Greenbaum has been volunteering at the museum for years, and he comes every Friday to answer children's inquiries about his experiences during the Holocaust.
"Mostly they just ask, 'How was it?' " Greenbaum said. "What I tell kids is this: Your kids won't have the chance to speak to a survivor, so you'll have to tell them what happened, what we said."
Events all over the world marked the day, including an exhibition of posters created by design students around the world called "The Holocaust — Keeping the Memory Alive" at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
In an era marked by headlines of bitter strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo and mass killings in Sudan's Darfur region, not to mention the tolls of wars raging worldwide, the U.N.'s message to "nations of the world to observe the day so that future generations will be spared acts of genocide" remains relevant.
The Holocaust museum has held similar ceremonies every year since the U.N. designation, and it works in solidarity with the international organization's mission to bring about awareness about genocide worldwide.
" 'Never again' is the phrase you sometimes hear, and that's what we're working towards here," said Jackie Berkowitz, the museum's communications director.
Arthur Berger, the museum's senior adviser, put it this way in a speech Friday. "When we are confronted with evil, are we going to stand up and protect those who are vulnerable? Or are we going to allow it to happen? That is what we have to ask ourselves today."
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