2019-01-02 / Voice at the Shore

Local survivors and families visit Philly’s new Holocaust Memorial Plaza

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice Shore Editor


Twenty-six Holocaust survivors and staff members from local Jewish organizations at Philadelphia’s new Holocaust Memorial Plaza on Dec 5. Twenty-six Holocaust survivors and staff members from local Jewish organizations at Philadelphia’s new Holocaust Memorial Plaza on Dec 5. On December 5, 26 Holocaust survivors from the shore area and their families took a bus trip to Philadelphia’s Horowitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Stockton University’s Holocaust Resource Center and Azeez Museum, along with Jewish Family Service offered the trip to the new Plaza, which opened on October 22.

The driving force behind the visit was a local Holocaust survivor, Laura Oberlender, who encouraged the organizations to plan it. “When the new memorial was put up, I was very anxious to see it,” said Oberlender, a child survivor. She has made many trips to see “Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs,” the Holocaust memorial statue by Nathan Rapoport, that anchors the new triangular plaza at the corner of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 16th Street.

“Philadelphia was the first city in the U.S. to have a statue to honor the six million Jews who perished,” said Oberlender of the statue, which was donated to the city of Philadelphia in 1964 by survivor families, some of whom now live at the shore and attended the Dec. 5 trip.

The Holocaust Memorial Plaza, was planned and funded by the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation as part of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Centennial celebration, said Gail Rosenthal, director of Stockton’s Holocaust Resource Center (HRC). She added that railroad tracks from Treblinka, which have been incorporated into the plaza, were donated by HRC.

Although local survivors were invited to attend the plaza’s October opening as VIPs, Rosenthal postponed the trip due to bad weather. “It was a freezing cold rainy day; I was so glad I didn’t bring our survivors,” said Rosenthal.

One serendipitous result of the postponement: The December 5 trip became a special event that made the evening news on several stations. “NBC, CBS and Fox News covered our visit to the plaza,” said Tina Serota of JFS. The news segments featured interviews with Oberlender as well as Larry Hirsch and his son Jonathan, who are local second- and third-generation survivors.

The trip also attracted a very special tour guide: Holocaust historian and scholar Michael Berenbaum, who has led past Stockton HRC study tours and consulted on the creation of the new memorial plaza. “When I told him we were going, he said: ‘You’re not including me?’” said Rosenthal. Berenbaum, who lives in California, made a special trip east to lead the tour.

During the planning process for the plaza, Berenbaum had strongly recommended that the American ideal of freedom be woven into the plaza’s design, given Philadelphia’s central role in the founding of the United States. Accordingly, a central feature of the memorial are six “pillars” that both honor the memory of the six million Jews murdered and highlight crucial differences between America and WWII Germany. The pillars are presented in pairs that contrast a cherished and protected American value with a Nazi atrocity that happened in the absence of that protected value. Pairings include: human equality v. the master race; American democracy v. totalitarianism; and natural rights v. The Nuremberg Laws.

The plaza’s physical structure includes other symbolic features. A grove of trees on one end of the plaza represents the woodlands that sheltered Nazi resistance fighters, to honor those who risked their lives fighting oppression and bigotry. Just in front of the trees is a remembrance wall with an embedded Eternal Flame, symbolizing hope, light, and the commitment never to forget those who perished in the Holocaust. In the pavement near the tree grove are the Treblinka train tracks donated by Stockton, which serve as a powerful reminder of how the Nazis deported their victims.

Perhaps the most moving symbol at the Plaza is a tree grown from a sapling that children imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp planted over seventy-five years ago. The children nurtured the sapling, knowing they were not likely to live to see it mature. The endurance of the tree – and its presence in the Holocaust Memorial Plaza - was “very meaningful to our survivors,” said Rosenthal.

To augment the experience of visiting the Plaza, educational content is accessible to visitors via a smartphone app. Created by the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, the app allows visitors to connect to video testimonials from Holocaust survivors and other relevant educational materials in numerous languages - establishing the site as “a living classroom,” according to the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.

“The exhibit was very meaningful to me,” said Oberlender. “We say all the time that it should never happen again. There are many tragedies in the world, but not like this. They didn’t just kill the Jews, they degraded them first. They stripped them naked, shaved them, tattooed them.” She added, “Many people who would have loved to see this exhibit are all dead.”

The day ended with a delicious lunch generously provided by the Short Hills Deli in Cherry Hill and a snowy bus ride back to the shore. “On the bus ride home we told jokes and sang Hanukah songs while watching the winter wonderland outside,” said Serota. “By the time we arrived back at JFS there was about 3-4 inches of snow!”

“I want to go back another time, when it’s warm!” said Larry Hirsch, who spent much of his day talking to reporters and had limited time left over to fully appreciate the plaza. “It’s important, so relevant, given what’s going on today, especially the killings in Pittsburgh and the rise of anti- Semitism. People need to be educated. They need to understand what could potentially happen if you don’t confront or educate people.” 

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