One by one they rose to bear witness: the Bronx rabbi, the Russian general, the Polish scientist, the Virginia nurse, the French bureaucrat.
From 13 nations and across daunting ideological divides, some 100 Allied soldiers who liberated the Nazi death camps gathered at the State Department yesterday to record for posterity the horrors they witnessed 36 years ago.
The three-day conference, the first of its kind on an international scale, was sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Council as part of its effort to keep the story of the concentration camps alive.
"What we all have in common is an obsession not to betray the dead we left behind," Council Chairman Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Buchenwald, said in his address. "They were killed once; they must not be killed again through forgetfulness."
The accounts of the liberators were delivered sometimes with precise, clinical detail, sometimes with broad literary sweep, sometimes with gut-wrenching emotion, and always before the watchful eye of a camera. The conference and side interviews are being videotaped for placement in the archives of a Holocaust museum to be completed on the Mall within a few years.
Wiesel organized the event in part to build a bulwark against a rising tide of revisionist history on the Holocaust. He said that in the past decade, more than 100 anti-Semitic publications have appeared in more than a dozen countries claiming the concentration camps and the genocide of 6 million Jews were a myth.
"This story must be told so that nobody sugar-coats history like they did with slavery and say that all the slaves loved the plantation," said Leon Bass, a high school principal from Philadelphia who liberated Buchenwald with an all-black unit.
While the conference was dominated by its emotional content, it was not without its diplomatic aspects. The Soviet Union, to the surprise of some who participated, sent a six-man delegation led by Lt. Gen. Pavel Danilovich Gudz, deputy head of the Academy of the Armed Forces.
In their official presentations, Gudz and the other members of the Soviet delegation spoke of the vast losses the Russian people incurred during World War II, but never mentioned Hitler's special victimization of Jews.
That raised some eyebrows among the conference participants, many of whom were Jewish. "We don't deny their suffering. Why do they so studiously avoid any mention of ours?" wondered Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who, as an Army chaplain, helped to liberate the Buchenwald camp.
Still, Wiesel said in an interview that the conference had generated "good feelings" between the two superpowers, and Lt. Gen. Vasily Yakovlevich Petrenko of the Red Army, a liberator of the Auschwitz camp, concurred.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. opened the conference by quoting Winston Churchill to the effect that the Holocaust was a "crime without a name," and speaker after speaker picked up that theme, decrying the limits of language to describe the indescribable.
Dr. Douglas G. Kelling, a medical officer who helped liberate Dachau, gave the most detailed account of the gas chambers and the crematorium. "When we got there, the furnaces were still warm, the odor of burning flesh was still strong . . . .Naked bodies numbering 100 were piled like cordwood outside the furnace area. Many were blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs. Some had been shot in the back of the head. Outside, 3,000 bodies were piled in boxcars. They had been just thrown in, with legs and arms hanging out doors. They had been dead for some time, and they were being brought to Dachau to be cremated. . . .
"What I experienced at Dachau was something that if I did not see with my own eyes, I would not believe could have happened in a civilized nation."
Wiesel, from the vantage point of a survivor, spoke of looking into the eyes of his liberators. "You looked and looked, you could not move your gaze away from us; it was as though you sought to alter reality with your eyes. They reflected astonishment, bewilderment, endless pain and anger--yes, anger above all . . . . Then you broke down, you wept. You wept; we could not. We had no tears left."
Schacter, from the perspective of a liberator, also spoke of eyes. "I remember those eyes, haunting, crippled, paralyzed with fear," he recalled of his tour through the barracks of Buchenwald.
As Schacter and others spoke, some in the audience wept openly, others buried their heads in their hands or stared grimly at the floor.
"A lot of attics are being opened up, and that's a very healthy process," said conference co-chairman Mark Talisman. By that he meant many of the liberators were confronting memories they had set aside long ago.
One was Monroe Erickson, a livestock farmer from Irene, S.D., who had read about the conference in a veterans' publication.
"I've got pictures of Gardelegan I haven't looked at in 15, 20 years because every time I did, I broke down and sobbed," Erickson said. "I was hiding it, keeping it to myself. But now I think we got to bring it out in the open so it won't happen again."