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Holocaust Survivors Gather for Special Family Reunion - 2003-11-03

Thousands of Holocaust survivors gathered in Washington this weekend for a special family reunion. The event was part of the activities marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

For 79-year-old New Jersey resident Paula Kempinski, Washington is a long way from her hometown of Klodawa, Poland. She spent nearly two years in the Auschwitz death camp, run by the Nazis in the early 1940s, before she was liberated in May, 1945. The rest of her family, though, was not so lucky. "I come from a family of 130 people. I'm the only one that survived. My father had ten brothers and sisters, siblings. And everybody was married and everybody had children. And how can you forgive or forget? That is not a possibility, forgive or forget," she said.

Mrs. Kempinski added that she will never forget the smell of burning flesh or the red color of the smoke coming out of Auschwitz's crematorium. What she is most afraid of, though, is that in the future, people will forget about the Holocaust or deny that it ever occurred. "I am already 79, close to 80. How much longer do I have? After we (are) gone, they can say, "(it) never happened. It was a hoax." It was not a hoax," she said.

Nearly seven thousand survivors and their families, who are now living in the United States, signed up to attend the two-day tribute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Among those present at Sunday's tribute was 71-year-old Maurice Raynor, a Dutch-British Jew who was interned for nearly two years at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

Cousins, 68-year-old Stanley Ostern and 70-year-old Rena Goldstein, are among the few Jews to survive in their hometown of Stryj, in western Ukraine, because they hid with 33 other people in a bunker for nearly two years.

At a commemorative ceremony Sunday, Nobel laureate and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel told those gathered that their presence symbolizes a victory over forgetfulness. "Surrounded by your children and grandchildren, my dear fellow survivors, do you feel joy in your hearts? Of course, you do. But it is not [de]void of sadness. It cannot be. And yet, and yet, close your eyes and see the invisible faces of those we have left behind or have left us behind as witnesses. Your presence, our presence here today, is our answer to their silent question. We have kept our promise. We have not forgotten you," he said.

This was the largest gathering the U.S. Holocaust Museum has hosted since it opened in 1993. As the wartime survivors age, this is likely to be one of the last such gatherings where they and their descendants can share experiences of one of the most pivotal events in the 20th century.