When close to 5,000 attendees, encompassing four generations, visited Washington, D.C. for the “Tribute to Holocaust Survivors: A Reunion of a Special Family,” in November, Seattle dermatologist Dr. Anna Ragaz joined them.
The event marked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 10th anniversary, and honored Holocaust survivors, liberators and rescuers, as well as their families. The museum organized a similar event when it was dedicated in 1993, but this year’s reunion — nearly 60 years after World War II ended — was likely to be one of the last of its size.
“It was really touching to see that amount of people,” said Ragaz. “It was well-organized and very dignified.”
The tribute was an especially powerful experience for Ragaz, who has slowly come to terms with the Shoah. Growing up in the former Czechoslovakia, the Holocaust was never mentioned in her family. It was not until she was 12 years old that Ragaz learned she survived a year with her family in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp when she was one to two years old. After British troops liberated the camp, Ragaz, suffering from rickets and near death with tuberculosis, was sent by the Red Cross to a sanatorium in Switzerland to recover.
“Obviously, I’m haunted by having no memories,” she said.
From virtually ignoring her past to embracing it, Ragaz has, in the past couple of years, come to accept how the Holocaust has had an enormous impact on her life — both as an impetus to succeed as an Olympic swimmer and a medical professional. She was grateful to attend such an event where she could hear other survivors share their experiences. It was important to meet and connect with other survivors and see their strength, she said. Ragaz met survivors who were reunited for the first time since they had been shifted from camp to camp.
“It was very moving,” she said. “The stories are incredible. I don’t know how people survived.”
Every time she connected with someone, Ragaz says she had feelings of both fear and fulfillment. The connections also helped her to feel less isolated.
“I think one is sort of haunted if you don’t connect to your past,” she said.
This was Ragaz’s first-ever visit to the D.C. museum. During this special weekend on Nov. 1 and 2, she and the other survivors were given special access to the museum’s permanent exhibition and special exhibits on Anne Frank and the hidden children.
“It’s so powerful that it makes me speechless,” said Ragaz. “It was amazing to see the survivors and different exhibits telling their stories.”
Nobel Laureate, survivor and Museum Founding Chairman Elie Wiesel delivered the keynote address on Nov. 2.
“His whole presence is just so powerful,” said Ragaz of Wiesel.
Other tribute events included a “Survivors’ Village” where survivors and their families could reunite and meet old friends and acquaintances, and workshops for survivors and their families on how to record testimonies. The museum also buried a time capsule of memorabilia and artifacts so that future generations could have access to information on the Holocaust.
The tribute closed with a special musical performance, “An Evening with Mike Burstyn and Stars of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater: Joanne Borts, Adrienne Cooper, Eleanor Reissa and Zalmen Mlotek.”
Though she originally attended the event ashamed to say she was a survivor, Ragaz said she “left the museum in celebration.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has hosted 20 million visitors since it opened in 1993. It houses a registry of 185,000 survivors and their families, as well as 7,800 oral histories and 930 hours of historical footage. For more information, visit www.ushmm.org.