In 1964, Philadelphia became home to the first public Holocaust memorial in the United States, the Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs.
Following an official groundbreaking half a century later, the plaza surrounding it will now be incorporated into part of the memorial.
On Tuesday, members of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, Holocaust survivors and others gathered below the monument, located at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, for the groundbreaking of the Holocaust Memorial Plaza. The speakers included PHRF Chairman David Adelman, Mayor Jim Kenney, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District.
“Ten years ago,” Shapiro said in reference to his first involvement with the project, “we had more survivors, not just here at this plaza or in our city or our commonwealth, but across the world. … The task falls to us, even more so than when we started in this effort, to tell this story.”
Adelman said the plaza will take about a year to build.
The plans for the plaza include train tracks from Treblinka, a tree grove to remember the forest that sheltered resistance fighters and a sapling from the tree grown by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
PHRF obtained these through partnerships with various organizations and people, such as the USC Shoah Foundation, Gratz College and Holocaust expert Michael Berenbaum.
“There’s a wide array of people in the Philadelphia community that have a passion for the Holocaust, a desire to make sure people never forget,” Adelman said.
The plaza was originally conceived in the early 2000s by the PHRF board at the time. It took 12 years for the board to raise the needed funds.
“This isn’t to compete with the monument; this is to support and enhance it,” Adelman said. “It really took time to figure out what would work economically and what would also activate the site in a way that people … can really appreciate it.”
PHRF has raised $4.5 million of the $7 million fundraising goal — enough to begin construction. They want to make sure there is also an endowment for maintenance and programming, which includes a location-activated app, as well as school group field trips.
“This memorial will help keep people’s memories where they should be and understand that evil — that those folks and the folks that exist today who start proclaiming that ‘blood and soil’ nonsense today — that they have to go back into their holes and go away,” Kenney said.
One of the attendees was Suzy Ressler, a Holocaust survivor whose testimonial is featured on the plaza’s site.
Ressler, who is now 90, was 15 when she was deported from Transylvania. She survived several concentration camps, as well as death marches.
“I feel that anything that will ensure remembrance of these horrible things for further generations is a plus,” she said.