A view of the eternal flame in the remembrance hall at the U.S. Holocaust… (Bill O'Leary/The Washington…)
A previous version of this article incorrectly put the number of Holocaust victims at 6 million. The regime of Nazi Germany killed an estimated 6 million Jews, but the estimated toll including Slavs, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals and others is 11 million. This version has been corrected.
Decades ago, organizers of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum determined that they would render both the broad sweep and horrifying detail of one of the 20th century’s most incomprehensible crimes against humanity: the Nazis’ slaughter of more than 11 million Jews, Slavs, Poles, Gypsies and homosexuals. Through artifacts, testimonials, art and architecture, the museum would be narrative and groundbreaking, a place to memorialize and educate.
The museum, which is celebrating its 20-year anniversary, offers programs that advance Holocaust knowledge and understanding, and advocates on behalf of genocide prevention worldwide.
Both publicly and privately funded, the museum, located on the Mall, attracts 1.6 million visitors annually and has hosted nearly 35 million visitors since its opening.
This year’s anniversary is marked by a Washington gathering of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans, and a four-city national tour. This timeline offers museum highlights:
Congress authorized the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to be a permanent memorial to all victims who perished in the Holocaust.
The museum is dedicated. President Bill Clinton gives the keynote address and Founding Chairman Elie Wiesel invokes his quote “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” which is etched in stone at the Hall of Remembrance. The crowd of thousands includes international delegations from countries affected by the Holocaust. The Dalai Lama was the first visitor.
Museum architect James Ingo Freed is awarded the American Institute of Architects’ National Honor Award. Freed and his family fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. He returned to European Holocaust sites for “visceral” inspiration for the museum’s design.
The Bringing the Lessons Home outreach and education program began with a five-year, $1 million grant from the Fannie Mae Foundation. The program for high school students provides tours, supplemental materials about the Holocaust and spring classes. In the summer, students participate in the Bringing the Lesson Home Ambassador Program.
The Committee on Conscience is established by the Holocaust Museum’s council to “work to halt acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity.” Early speakers include Richard Goldstone, a South African judge whose rulings helped defeat apartheid and served as chief U.N. prosecutor of genocide suspects in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
The museum’s first special exhibition is “Assignment: Rescue — the Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee,” about the American journalist who helped 2,000 refugees escape Vichy France. It is one of eight exhibitions that have been presented in 180 cities across the United States, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia.
D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey works with the museum to create training programs that apply the lessons of the Holocaust to the challenges of law enforcement. Nearly 80,000 police, FBI agents, prosecutors and judges have participated.
Sara Bloomfield, who had been with the museum for 10 years, is named director. Previous directors include Walter Reich (1994-1998), Stephen Katz (1994), Jeshajahu Weinberg (1988-1994) and Arthur Rosenblatt (1986-1988).
The museum hosts the international conference “Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons 1945–1951,” which brought together survivors and scholars to tell the stories of European Jews after World War II.
Former Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire details his experience as a U.N. peacekeeping commander during the 1994 Rwandan genocide for a packed audience. The general saved thousands during the 100-day slaughter but was ignored when he called for more international intervention.
More than 7,000 survivors and their families attend the 10th anniversary tribute. Elie Wiesel and Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, bury a time capsule.
The museum declares a “genocide emergency,” warning that hundreds of thousands could perish in Darfur, Sudan. The declaration, a museum first, follows a May 2004 visit by museum staff to Chad to document refugees’ accounts of violence firsthand.
There is an agreement to open the International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, and copies of 100 million documents with information on more than 17 million people are now available to Holocaust survivors, their families, and scholars. To date, the museum has provided information in response to 14,700 requests.