The Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza teemed with anticipation the morning of Oct. 22 as more than 200 people buzzed about, chatting and exchanging pleasantries as they waited for the opening ceremony to begin.
The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation (PHRF) formally unveiled the new plaza with speeches by those involved with the project, local officials and a Holocaust survivor, as well as a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Following the event, the plaza opened to the public.
Located at the corner of 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs stands at the plaza’s focal point. The late sculptor Nathan Rappaport created the bronze monument in 1964, which will now be joined in its mission of remembrance by the surrounding plaza.
“For many of us, today is a day of conflicting emotions, as we reflect on an event that represents the ultimate manifestation of human evil and, without a doubt, the most significant violation of human rights in modern history,” PHRF Chairman David Adelman said. “But today is also a reason to celebrate — celebrate the democratic values that bind us, celebrate the furtherance of Holocaust education and celebrate the people that made this initiative possible.”
Different elements and additions to the plaza serve as a reminder of the Holocaust. These include six pillars on one side of the plaza for the 6 million Jews murdered. One side of each pillar mentions a key event of the Holocaust to contrast with a different democratic value. Train tracks that once led to the Treblinka concentration camp are embedded in the pavement to underscore the deportations that led to genocide.
One of the saplings of the original Theresienstadt tree — planted and nurtured by children imprisoned in that concentration camp — now stands at the plaza. The sapling’s presence is intended to highlight the investment that must be made for future generations. At the far western portion of the plaza is a tree grove, which represents the woodlands that sheltered those in the resistance movement and those forced into hiding.
PHRF worked with the USC Shoah Foundation to include the plaza in its iWalk app. The app provides users with three different guides through the plaza — for middle school students, high school students and general audiences — to learn about its different sections. The guides include testimonies from Holocaust survivors, maps and other multimedia content. The information is also available in Spanish.
“I’m here today, proud three times over,” said Stephen Cozen, chair of USC Shoah Foundation board of councilors and founder and chairman of Cozen O’Connor. “I’m a Jewish American, I’m a Philadelphia native and I’m the chair of the USC Shoah Foundation. I’m proud of this inspiring memorial and important teaching tools that we will add to it.”
“I grew up in Budapest, Hungary, and all four of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors,” said PHRF Acting Director Eszter Kutas, who was not one of the speakers but was praised for her work in creating the plaza several times during the speeches. “This project has been a personal calling for me because of that legacy. It makes me extremely proud and inspired to be able to participate in something that is going to have a lasting impact for future generations in Holocaust education.”
In 2004, PHRF began brainstorming possible ways to use the land surrounding the monument. The foundation decided on a plaza, “an open public space that’s accessible to everybody,” Kutas said.
Two and a half years ago, PHRF unveiled its plans. Then, on Nov. 28, PHRF broke ground and construction began.
With its location at such a central point in the city, some speakers noted that while many would come to explore the plaza, many others would happen upon it accidentally.
“It’s just beautiful,” said Sarah Meller, a Holocaust survivor who attended the opening. “I know so many people will come here and read about it and see and experience this. It’s really a good thing they did this. It’s a wonderful memorial. Of course, a lot of people come to Philadelphia to visit, a lot of tourists, and this will be nice for people to see.”
Meller was 8 in 1941 when Italy invaded her hometown in what was then Yugoslavia. Her father and brother fled to the mountains to hide with the partisans, but Meller stayed with her mother. Her father thought Germans wouldn’t hurt women and children.
Meller and her mother eventually fled as well. They lived in hiding with a farmer for six months, then fled for the mountains.
The British liberated them. She and her family eventually came to the United States as refugees.
“People should know what happened, and it should never happen again,” Meller said. “People should know how terrible Hitler was. He killed so many.”
The final speaker was Holocaust survivor Anneliese Nossbaum, whose testimonial is included in the iWalk app.
Nossbaum grew up in Germany. The war started when she was 12. She survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, but lost her family in the Holocaust.
Her speech, she said, was a tribute to her family.
“When I speak to students, my message to them is this: Try to understand other people,” she said. “Try to be tolerant, be kind and maybe even a little bit loving. Know right from wrong, and demand justice.