In 1964, Philadelphia made national history with the installation of Polish sculptor Nathan Rapoport’s Monument to the Six Million Martyrs, becoming the first city to construct a monument to the Holocaust.
That space will soon be expanded to include a larger gathering spot to commemorate and reflect on the Holocaust.
Survivors, families, public officials and guests joined together under a cloudy sky on May 11 as plans for a Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza were officially unveiled.
The plaza — the work of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation (PHRF) in partnership with an architectural firm — will be constructed along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 16th Street and will be completed, hopefully, by 2017.
Mayor Jim Kenney and Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro spoke during the event, as did Miriam Cane, executive vice president of the Holocaust Survivors Association of Philadelphia; Mim Krik, president of the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Association of Philadelphia; and others.
“A memorial that speaks to one generation must be renewed for a second generation,” said Michael Berenbaum, a rabbi, professor and filmmaker who specializes in the Holocaust.
“Our task in creating this new space is going to be to tell the story of the Holocaust to a new generation in a way that is intellectually informative and emotionally compelling,” Berenbaum continued, “and makes them see the sculpture — that has graced this place for some 52 years now — see this sculpture in a new light.”
Steven Kessler, chairman of PHRF, was pleased with the outcome of the unveiling.
“Everybody who spoke had meaningful, important comments and the result of which would be to just make this a reality,” he said afterward.
Plans for the plaza include an eternal flame representing “hope” and “light,” and six pillars representing the 6 million Jews who perished under the Nazi regime. Inscriptions on the six columns will describe key events and provide context, Kessler said.
The content on the pillars also will serve to reinforce the connection of the history of the Holocaust to the particular history of Philadelphia — the “birthplace of liberty in the U.S.”
A “forest” of trees representing acts of resistance will be clustered in the plaza, but one particular tree, whose origins date back to 1942, will stand in the center.
Kessler shared the story of Irma Lauscher, a schoolteacher who taught children imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. On the eve of Tu B’Shevat, she enlisted the help of a guard to bring a seedling for the class to plant, which they then grew from the children’s quarters.
The children gave up a portion of their water rations to help the tree grow as Lauscher told them the tree needed water and sun — “Can you imagine asking these children to give up a portion of their daily water when their ration was so small, but they did,” Kessler interjected — and from there the tree grew.
“That’s why a cutting of this tree that will thrive at the Memorial Plaza is so significant,” he said.
Embedded into the wall along the back of the plaza will be railroad tracks with text explaining how they were used to transport individuals by train to concentration camps. There will also be a remembrance wall in which donors can pay to have their family’s names inscripted and memorialized.
Kenney recounted growing up in a neighborhood with synagogues on every corner and going to the dry cleaners one day as a 9 year old and noticing a tattoo of numbers on the owner’s arm.
“Women didn’t have tattoos — not like today — and I couldn’t figure out what it was,” he recalled. “I went in the next time and I asked her, and she took me aside and she told me. She was the only member of her family that survived.
“So I began to understand.”
Kenney alluded to comments that have been made by presidential candidates — without naming names — and said he is “fearful for our country” upon hearing remarks about barring people based on their religion and other speech he hasn’t heard “since the 1930s.”
“We’re talking about going back somewhere to where we never want to go again,” he said. “It’s so important that this beautiful memorial gets enhanced and there’s a place to come and sit and contemplate and think about where we should never, ever allow our country or world to go again.”
He presented models of the Liberty Bell to Miriam Cane and Mim Krik, who both spoke to the importance of the memorial.
The plaza “will help people better visualize the many aspects of the Holocaust and hopefully help to prevent racial and ethnic intolerance in the world,” Cane said.
“With very few survivors left, we must not allow their voices to go silent,” Krik added. “That is why it is imperative that we, the generation responsible for keeping the memories, continue to preserve the legacy for generations to come. This plaza will help to achieve this goal — l’dor v’dor.”
Josh Shapiro has been involved with the plaza since its inception, serving as an original board member of the PHRF.
For him — whose 7 year old came home from school after learning about the Holocaust and said it meant “good people have to always speak up against the bad people” — this plaza will provide a place for reflection and contemplation.
“Whether you’re a 7 year old,” he said, “whether you’re a college student, whether you’re an activist, whether you’re the mayor of the city — to have an opportunity to stop here, to reflect, to be inspired, and then most importantly to act in a way that protects others, that makes us a more inclusive people, that makes us zachor — remember, never forget.”
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