Renewed S.F. Holocaust site gets a breath of new life

Pascual said he has often reflected on Segal's sculpture. Working in the information booth at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, located directly across from the park, he sees it practically every day.

And while he admitted his knowledge of the Holocaust is vague, he said the memorial — which depicts 10 emaciated bodies lying dead and one lone survivor peering out through a rusting barbed-wire fence — disturbs him profoundly.

"It shows me how the Jews suffered for the Holocaust," he said. "It's not pardonable."

Pascual is not alone in his torment. Every day, dozens of visitors pass by the 16-year-old, patina-on-bronze sculpture. Some stop for reflection; many move on, shaken by the stark images.

Recently, $65,000 worth of improvements, made to the site through donations from San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's Park Renaissance Action Grant Project and the Holocaust Education Fund, have drawn more attention and additional visitors to the memorial.

New granite benches, granite educational signs and a 72-by-36-inch granite "Holocaust Memorial" sign have been added. The stairway, which leads down to the sculpture, has been equipped with black railings to replace those that were stolen several years ago. A matching short, black fence surrounds a brand new garden filled with flowers and intricate landscaping, replacing the formerly dead brush.

These aesthetic and practical improvements sharply contrast with the sculpture's previous surroundings.

"It's easy to forget how heinous it had become," said Candie Mattson, a San Francisco Recreation and Park Department gardener and initiator of the renovation project. "I could not stand, any longer, on one side in lush greenery and look across at that sad monument. It could not stand alone in disrepair in an area of such beauty."

Community volunteers, who worked through rain and shine, completed most of the renovation. "These were everyday ordinary working people like you or me who really embraced their work and my vision," said Mattson. "It became a labor of love."

Volunteers have agreed to maintain the grounds, which isn't easy. Aside from weeding, planting, litter removal and general upkeep, the site is the frequent target of vandalism. As recently as three months ago, someone covered much of the sculpture and its surroundings in black spray-paint.

"As I came around the corner, the heart inside my chest constricted," said Mattson. "When I saw what they'd done, it tore the heart right out of my chest."

The paint has since been removed and plans are under way to coat the area with an anti-graffiti treatment.

In a dedication ceremony held last week, Holocaust survivor William J. Lowenberg addressed the small crowd of volunteers and city park workers with words of praise. Lowenberg and Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, head the Holocaust Education fund, which granted the project $20,000.

"Sixty years ago I was in a place that was not too kind to me and my family," Lowenberg said, taking the microphone from its stand and pulling it close to his mouth. "Today, I'm here in San Francisco and I thank you for the loyalty shown to survivors."

Prior to the ceremony, Lowenberg spoke with passion about his first meeting with Segal. As a member of a mayor's committee to raise funds for a Holocaust memorial sculpture in the early 1980s, Lowenberg convinced the reluctant artist to take on the project.

"We sat just across from here," he said pointing toward the Legion of Honor, "and we talked for probably two hours before he said he'd do it.

"We became great friends."

In June, Segal died of cancer in his South Brunswick, N.J., home at the age of 75. As a result, he wasn't able to see the completed renovations to his sculpture's site. But, the work did not go on without his knowledge and genuine support.

"I wish he could have lived to see how his sculpture has been opened-up for everyone to see — not just the Jewish community, but people at large," said Mattson. "It's about paying respect to a memorial — something everyone can reflect in."

"Oh my God!" gasped one female tourist, grasping the arm of her male companion as the sculpture came into her view. Closer inspection soon proved the sight camera-worthy and several shots were somberly snapped.

The laughter of children could be heard in the background and fog rolled through the trees.