World leaders, including members of Congress, will gather Thursday overlooking the beaches of Normandy to honor the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and the heroism of those who served to save the world from Nazi terror. But on Tuesday, a much smaller (though perhaps no less emotional) ceremony took place in the Capitol complex.
Organized in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, members of Congress took time to listen to Steven Joseph Fenves, a Holocaust survivor who was held in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and later the Buchenwald camp at the time of its liberation by American forces.
“June 6, 1944, was my 13th birthday. If the war had not intervened, that would have been the day of my bar mitzvah,” Fenves said. “That bar mitzvah never took place. By June of 1944, my family had been living under occupation for four years.”
Before Fenves and his family were imprisoned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, they were first moved to a ghetto from their home in the Hungarian-occupied Yugoslav territories, which were eventually occupied by Nazi Germany. It was there that Fenves first heard from a BBC broadcast that the Allies had landed on the Normandy beaches, and he relayed the news to Jews in the ghetto. Shortly after, he and his family were sent to the camps, which Allied forces steadily worked toward liberating after the D-Day invasion and related offensives.
The presence of a Holocaust survivor added to the intimate gathering in the Senate side of the Capitol Visitor Center, where senators in attendance largely delivered readings from soldiers who were involved in storming the beaches or from those who experienced the terror of the Nazis.
Freshman Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, a veteran herself, read from the personal story of Charles Stein, who fled from Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, came to the United States and was drafted into the Army ahead of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“On D-Day, my team went in with the 29th infantry division. We got on a ship, we went to the beaches of Normandy,” McSally said, quoting Stein. “We were on a ship that couldn’t get in. The first wave that came during the night had blocked the entire beach, and they hadn’t been able to get some of the ships out. Some of them sunk.”
“So we sat out there under fire from the Germans, the German artillery, but we didn’t get hit, and by some time early in the afternoon we finally got in, and landed on Omaha Beach,” she quoted.
Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina led the ceremony Tuesday, along with Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. They are two of the Senate’s four representatives to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
“More than 6 million people lost their lives in the Holocaust, and without the Allies’ efforts on D-Day, that number would certainly have been significantly higher,” Scott said. “It’s hard to imagine the horrors inflicted on so many folks in the Jewish community, and those deemed ‘undesirable.’”
Congress is leaving early in the week to allow members to travel to Normandy for the 75th anniversary, which could quite plausibly be the last time that many elderly World War II veterans who stormed the beaches are able to attend.
“The troops deserve our admiration for generations to come, but it’s more than just the admiration for years to come. We honor them by reading the names, documenting their stories and carrying out their legacy — a commitment to uphold our moral agenda of freedom and justice. ‘Never again’ becomes a reality,” Cardin said.