"I woke up screaming in the night. I knew the horrors of Auschwitz and Belsen," said Elizabeth Taylor. "The letters, the poems, the listening."
Taylor was relating her experiences as a narrator of "Genocide," a film on the Holocaust produced for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, following its premiere last night at the Kennedy Center. After the showing, Taylor, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and others responsible for the film held an emotional press conference.
"It was like a poem," said Taylor of "Genocide" in a raspy voice. "Written by a 9-year-old girl in Warsaw. And they found the poem on her body. The girl was dead. But the poem was alive."
The curtain at the Eisenhower Theater opened last night before an audience of about 1,100 people who paid an average donation of $500 a ticket to view the film. "Genocide" tells the story of the Nazi persecution of European Jews, as well as other subcultures, through newsreels, photographs and memoirs culled from archives.
The spectators, including members of Congress, the diplomatic corps, and prominent members of the Jewish community as well as concentration camp survivors, were completely silent when the two-hour movie drew to a close. Then, chairman of the evening Frank Sinatra strode onto the stage and stood before the blank screen that only moments earlier showed piles of dead bodies.
"At this point," Sinatra said, "words are more than inadequate." Sinatra introduced Leon Kahn, a Holocaust survivor whose memoirs are read during the film by Taylor; Arnold Schwartzman, the producer and director, and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center.
"Bravo," said Sinatra in his tuxedo. "Magnificent work. Bravo."
Sinatra also introduced Taylor--"a Jew herself," as he put it. Taylor and the absent Orson Welles, who also narrated the film, were being honored for their contributions to the project.
"I don't need an award," said Taylor, clad in a pink dress with sequins and a plunging neckline, as she smiled for photographers pressing against the Eisenhower stage.
"I did it out of a sense of being and dedication and it was an extraordinary experience for me. It was real, what happened, and it could exist again."
Welles was not able to attend because, as Sinatra explained, he had a temperature of 103. So Taylor and Sinatra each accepted his award -- a framed "Genocide" poster.
"I have nothing more to say," said Taylor, her diamond ring flashing. "Except I was so moved by what I saw on the screen tonight."
Taylor apparently wasn't the only one. Following the film and press conference, many of the guests attended an opulent reception in the Kennedy Center's atrium.
"There's a sense of guilt after seeing the production," said Rabbi Bertram Less of the Beth Shalom Congregation of Washington. "We're dressed in gala clothes and enjoying such a fine reception."
"It was really magnificent," Less also said. "It should be used as an educational tool throughout the country so that those with the audacity to deny the Holocaust ever existed should be put to shame."
The Wiesenthal Center, as its dean, Rabbi Hier, explained, plans to distribute the film, which cost $3 million to produce, as a curriculum guide for high schools and universities offering courses on the Holocaust.
Recapturing history to prevent its repetition was one purpose of last night's gathering. "I don't think there's enough that can be done to remember those people," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). "We are not a nation of historical roots and tend to forget what has just happened."
"I gave $25,000," said Ephraim Schlisser, of Los Angeles, a founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Schlisser's father was a survivor of Auschwitz and died of leukemia five years ago.
After watching the film, Schlisser said, "It was sort of like home. He [his father] could talk about it easily and he made me feel very strongly about it. His entire family was wiped out in Hungary."
Kahn, whose book "No Time to Mourn" is quoted extensively in the film, said he was pleased with the results of the movie. "If I would be in the movie, people wouldn't come to see me, but with their names -- Liz Taylor, Sinatra, and Orson Welles -- it's a drawing card.
"I feel there's a purpose of God for letting me live. When I was watching 3,000 women being killed, I thought I heard a voice that said 'Watch it. Watch it: Make sure you tell the story.' "