WASHINGTON — At first sight, the gathering of Holocaust survivors in Miami last weekend had the hallmark of previous such reunions. Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Prize-winner, addressed the 4,000 American survivors who came together to revisit their tragic wartime experience and to celebrate 50 years of life since then.
In a special room called a survivors' village, different wartime locales and camps were identified so that attendees could find campmates long forgotten to them. And in a moving climax, a United States Army band bearing the flags of units that liberated the camps was cheered by the survivors.
But this was not a reunion like any other. Held to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945, this conference and others planned for later this year may be the last of their kind, according to experts on the Holocaust.
``This is the last time that the witnesses can come together,'' says Michael Berenbaum, director of research at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, because most are now in their 70s and 80s. ``After this year, at the 60th anniversary for example, you'll have the younger survivors, and theirs are recollections of childhood, not mature recollections of the Holocaust.
At least three major assemblies are being held this year apart from Miami: in New York and Brussels in April and in Jerusalem in November. Survivors are signing up to attend in large numbers because so many are eager to help document what happened in the camps.
The reunion agendas reflect the concerns of many survivors that when the survivors are gone, the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Third Reich will be forgotten or rewritten and the world will slide into other holocausts. Panel discussions in Miami featured subjects such as ``Holocaust Denial,'' ``The Impact of the Holocaust as We Approach the 21st Century,'' and ``Documentation and Remembrance of the Holocaust.''
``Our concern is daily,'' says Ben Meed, a survivor who organized the major reunions, including last weekend's in Miami.
``Unfortunately we still have places like Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina,'' says Roman Kent, an Auschwitz survivor who traveled to Miami from Connecticut. ``We want to remind the world that if we do not fight evil, the Holocaust can come again.''
In the last 15 years, survivors have been successful in raising world awareness about the Third Reich and Holocaust. ``The world is open to listening to them,'' Mr. Berenbaum says. ``The Holocaust has become the touchstone of absolute evil in our time.''
When concentration-camp survivors began arriving in the US in the late 1940s, they were known as refugees, and then as immigrants, Berenbaum explains. Many were so busy trying to establish themselves in the US that they buried their feelings and memories of the camps.
It took two men, Mr. Meed and Ernest Michel, a New Yorker who was at Auschwitz, to change all that. In 1981, they organized the first survivors' reunion, which drew 15,000 in Jerusalem. In 1983, a record 23,000 came together in Washington, D.C. Reunions have since been held in other cities. An estimated 70,000 Holocaust survivors live in the US.
``Ben Meed's singular achievement has been to catapult the survivors into a major movement,'' Berenbaum says. ``As survivors, it means they bore witness to a major event in history and have something significant to say.... The survivors want to speak more because they realize that if they die, it goes with them.''
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum sent 15 researchers to Miami to gather new photographs, oral histories, and other documentation.