By Jan L. Apple
Community members, legislators, musicians and clergy gathered in Center City Sunday afternoon to honor the memory of the 6 million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.
The City of Brotherly Love has a celebrated history as the birthplace of the nation; the home of the first flag, daily newspaper, public library, bank, hospital, university, labor organization and countless other firsts. But who would have guessed that 50 years ago, this city also became the first to erect a monument to the Holocaust on public land, paving the way for dozens of similar structures across the country?
On a sunny Sunday afternoon just before Yom Hashoah, more than 800 people gathered near 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. to honor that milestone and the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust that the bronze statue represents.
“Why this monument? Why this day? Why act?” asked keynote speaker James Young, the director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Standing on a podium before an American and Israeli flag, the professor recalled the evolution of the 18-foot-tall sculpture created by the late Nathan Rapoport. The internationally renowned sculptor and survivor from Warsaw also designed a monument at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.
“Nathan Rapoport once told me that the survivors in Philadelphia somehow felt that they wouldn’t be able to start a new life without paying tribute to this tragic past,” Young said.
The realization of their dream was dedicated on April 26, 1964, with a speech from Abram Shnaper, president of the group that later became known as the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Philadelphia. (Shnaper, 95, died Monday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day. See his obituary on page 28.)
Young noted that about a year after Philadelphia’s monument was erected, survivors in New York City tried to create a similar structure in Riverdale Park but were repeatedly rejected. A former arts commissioner told the stunned group that their proposed work seemed “’excessively large and that monuments in the park should be limited to American history,” Young said.
“These were new Americans, yet their memories were not seen as part of American history or memory.”
Eventually, a museum and memorial were built in New York, yet a monument was never erected.
“Today, if you visit Riverdale Park, you can see that original cornerstone,” a small plaque on the ground, Young continued.
In addition to the responsibility of remembering one of the darkest periods of history, as genocide and injustice continue throughout the world, “we must remember to act as well,” Young said.
The sounding of two shofars followed by a moment of silence marked the beginning of the solemn ceremony, which also included performances by the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Philadelphia Girls Choir, memorial candlelighting, and readings by survivors and their family members. A procession of students from local Hebrew high schools and Jewish youth groups placed single white carnations at the base of the monument, where Jewish War Veterans of Bucks County and other organizations had also left floral wreaths.
The annual event is sponsored by the Memorial Committee for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the local survivor association.
Mayor Michael Nutter, one of many political, religious and community dignitaries present, said it was fitting that a city founded on the tenets of freedom lay claim to the first public Holocaust memorial and urged the crowd to be proactive in fighting bigotry and hatred.
“By standing here today, we are affirming that we are the ones to remember,” Nutter said. “We also remember them by preserving their stories.”
Event chair Sarita Russ Gocial relayed one such story of a couple trying to explain to their granddaughter why there were numbers tattooed on their arms.
“Many were completely alone in the world,” said Gocial, the daughter of survivors. Today, “the survivors continue to inspire us.”
Miriam Caine, 80, a longtime member of the local Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, spoke in her native Yiddish tongue: “We will never forget them.”
Caine was 7 years old when she and her family were captured by Russians and sent on cattle trains to Siberia.
“The survivors are dwindling,” she said. “It’s important to educate the children. They will have to continue to tell our story when we no longer can.”
Click the multimedia icon on the right for a slideshow from the event.