As I looked around the Capital Centre, the cavernous sports arena filled with 15,000 people - Jewish survivors of Hitler's rampage through Europe and their children - I wondered aloud to my mother: ''It's hard to believe that even more than this number of people were murdered.'' My mother looked at me. ''I saw this number of people walk into the gas chambers every day in Auschwitz.''
We were attending the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors April 11 to 13 in Washington. A reunion bringing together people originating from many different countries in Europe speaking many languages from all walks of life, all sharing a grim heritage.
The survivors gathered to sustain a dark memory. They brought their children to ensure that the new generation would remember and not be indifferent.
They came to find anyone who had information about friends, townspeople, and most of all to find witnesses who might provide an account of how family members perished in the extermination camps and prisons. The events surrounding their deaths are most often unknown.
They found comfort in being with each other, shedding the public posture usually reserved for the rest of the world to whom the Nazi horrors are a mere historic event.
As I looked at the aging faces, I was struck with the realization that the collective experience of pain in their hearts and memories encompasses every kind of cruelty that man has ever inflicted on his fellow man. This shared memory united this diverse remnant of European Jewry.
Throughout the week, we listened to scholars and poets, community leaders, and elected officials try to interpret those events. The survivors exhibited the greatest surge of emotion when speaker after speaker praised the United States for giving them a home and a chance to rebuild their lives. They were equally emotional when they heard Israel's safety and security reaffirmed. Because it is these people who really understand what the absence of a Jewish homeland meant to the Jews in those years of annihilation.
And they were moved by the American public's recognition of this tragedy. I heard the sentiment expressed several times: ''The death camps were to be the end of evil, strife, war and distrust in the world.'' Its sheer magnitude was to make these concepts obsolete. But, on the whole, the world ignored the Holocaust and the survivors and generally did not acknowledge the events that took place.
It is the creation of Israel and the knowledge that there is a country that will never close its doors to Jews from anywhere should there ever be a need which provide some measure of consolation to these survivors of the Holocaust.
They have witnessed the world fall around them in Europe, and they came to this country to rebuild their lives. Since then they have had children, pursued careers, and continued living.
As I watched my mother and her few surviving family members among the thousands of people like them at the gathering, I thought about the responsibility that remains.
Perhaps no one can truly understand what these people experienced or be with them in their innermost thoughts, but we must reflect on this time in history, the message it presents to us today. And not forget.