Holocaust memorials proliferate in towns big and small

No earth was moved last month at the groundbreaking of one of the nation’s newest Holocaust memorials.

Instead, the gatherers stood silently, symbolic shovels in hand, on the immaculate lawn where the privately funded $400,000 monument soon will rise. A succession of speakers delivered somber homilies.

The construction of a new Holocaust memorial is hardly unusual. But this was Des Moines, Iowa, home to a small Jewish community and an even smaller number of survivors.

Part of the sculpture “The Holocaust” outside the Legion of Honor in San Francisco photo/courtesy of univ. of minnesota

Just 2,800 Jews live in the capital of Iowa, among them a rapidly diminishing number of survivors. Local authorities, along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines and Jewish philanthropists, felt it was important for the city to set aside prominent public space near the state capitol to remember the victims of Nazi persecution and their liberators.

“As time went by and as the last survivors pass away, the study of the Holocaust in the school districts began to wane and the Jewish community felt the memory of it needed to be perpetuated,” said Mark Finkelstein, the head of the federation.

The Jews of Des Moines hardly are the first to push for such a project.

Though precise numbers are difficult to come by, Holocaust studies experts say museums and monuments dedicated to the genocide have proliferated across the United States over the past two decades.

Major American cities typically have at least one Holocaust memorial, but now many midsize ones do too, including Richmond, Va., Charleston, S.C., and El Paso, Texas. Memorials even are found in relatively small cities such as Whitwell, Tenn., and Palm Desert, Calif. And more are in the works, including a recently approved monument designed by architect Daniel Libeskind to be built on the statehouse grounds in Columbus, Ohio.

“There are probably more than 300 Holocaust study centers and museums around the country,” said James Young, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the author of a book about Holocaust remembrance. “Just in Manhattan, there are 80 [memorials]. Multiply that and you probably have thousands.”

Young says the most important factor driving the construction of Holocaust memorials these days is the initiative of elderly survivors. With the youngest of them nearing 80, survivors are eager to educate future generations about their suffering and, in so doing, give meaning to their lives.

“It doesn’t take a big community,” Young said. “If someone is inspired to build a memorial site, it is possible to do so.”

One such person was Eva Mozes Kor, 79, who along with her twin sister was subjected to savage medical experiments carried out by Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele.

In 1995, Kor founded the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, a small city in Indiana. Each year about 75,000 mostly non-Jewish children visit the center from nearby rural areas of western and central Indiana. Kor and two other survivors, including her husband, present lectures to the young visitors.

For Jewish leaders, Holocaust memorializing is often a way to build community around a nonreligious issue.

“The creation of a Holocaust memorial is likely something everybody can cooperate on,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University. “The minute you touch Israel, it’s divisive. But for Jews and Christians to get together to commemorate the Holocaust, that can bring them together, especially in smaller communities.”

Holocaust commemoration also has been driven by Christians like Michael Tudor, a Louisiana lawyer and a Baptist. He came up with the idea of building a Holocaust memorial while jogging past a sculpture in New Orleans dedicated to the memory of the victims.

If everything goes according to plan, Tudor will break ground on an $80,000 privately funded Holocaust memorial in his hometown of Alexandria (population: 47,000) in November.