Remembering The Holocaust

By: Heather Abraham

“Forgetting is the final instrument of genocide” Simon Norfolk  

On May 8th of this year, the United States will celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.   For Americans, Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) commemorates the unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allied forces.  Sixty-five years have passed since this momentous event and the “greatest generation” is quickly and quietly fading away.   Sadly, as time places decades between these past events and the present generation, some understand the events of World War II as fodder for history books or as the backdrop for blockbuster movies.  In contrast, the survivors of Hitler’s bloody reign, strive to leave behind a most important legacy—the legacy of remembering.  

Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden

On Sunday April 25th, 2010, I attended the dedication of the Abe Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden in Dunwoody, Georgia.  The Holocaust Memorial Garden is the result of one Holocaust survivor’s determination to leave behind a memorial that will serve to educate generations to come about one of the darkest chapters in human history.  Besser spoke briefly about the project that took a lifetime to complete.  “When I was in the concentration camp, I promised myself that if I survived I would build a memorial so that the world would not forget. With the dedication of this memorial garden my dreams became a reality.”  The Besser Memorial Garden is a culmination of a life-long effort to create a tangible memorial that would stand in remembrance of the six million Jews who lost their lives and in testimony to those who survived and gave birth to numerous thriving Jewish communities world-wide.   

Just 16 when he was separated from his family in 1942, Abe Besser, a young man with metalworking skills, was a commodity for the Nazi war machine.  Put to work in a German munitions factory, Besser was one of the few “lucky Jews” whose trip to a death camp was deferred as long as he remained useful in his labors.   According to the brief biography provided to attendees at the dedication, Besser’s family did not fare as well.  Besser lost his mother in Auschwitz, his father and a brother in Gross-Rosen, and an older brother who was shot when discovered in a hideout.  Besser’s four sisters survived Nazi Germany’s final solution as forced laborers in a German military uniform factory.  For Besser and other survivors, it is imperative that future generations remember, not only the events of the holocaust, but the thriving Jewish community that existed in Europe before these dark events.    

Garrett Van de Grift, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, Abe Besser, Michael Wise, Stanley Daniels

The challenge of remembering was the central theme of the event.  Dr. Michael Berenbaum, keynote speaker, spoke eloquently and forcefully of the importance and legacy of ‘remembering’ in Judaic history.  From the remembrance and observation of the Sabbath, of slavery in Egypt and the subsequent liberation of the Exodus, to the conquest of the promised lands, Jews have historically and ritually paused not only to “remember” these events but to observe the remembrance.  Of particular concern for Berenbaum is the realization that we are living in an era which will soon be void of direct survivors of the Holocaust.  Berenbaum posed an intriguing question that is, I would argue, also of importance to those not of Jewish descent.  “How does the Jewish world community deal with this inevitable and pressing challenge to remember after there are no more survivors of the actual events but only eyewitnesses to the eyewitnesses?” Berenbaum spoke of how Jewish communities were “obligated to remember and had an obligation to remember how to remember.”   Berenbaum described the Besser Memorial as “wrestling to tell a complex tale with a few images and words” and “wrestling because it was built in the heart of a living Jewish community.”   The memorial, according to Berenbaum “stands as a symbol of acceptance but also stands to shock, shame, and horrify.”   Just as the Holocaust is a “symbol of death and destruction—the survivors are the symbols of resurgence, rebirth, and, regeneration.”  For all who attended the ceremony and walked through the graceful and contemplative open air rooms, remembering is experienced with the senses as well as the mind.  

Passing through the stone entryway of the memorial garden, visitors encounter a life-sized sculpture of Abe Besser’s mother protectively gathering two children in her arms.   Behind her a brief but poignant passage describes the events which inspired the tragic intensity captured in bronze.  This theme of bronze sculpture, created by Dee Clements, and contemplative narrative repeats throughout the memorial which consists of a series of open air “rooms” designed by architect Stanley Daniels.  Each room has a theme depicting Jewish life in Europe, the rise of Nazi power and subsequent persecution of the Jewish population, the establishment of concentration camps, the death of millions of European Jews, and the contemplative sanctuary which holds the eternal flame of remembrance.  The garden memorial ends with highlighting the journey of survivors and the promise of renewal and rebirth.   

The Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden is a stunning work of art that poignantly reenacts the historical and spiritual journey of European Jews caught in the insanity of Nazi Germany’s rise to power but it also highlights the enduring legacy of the Judaic tradition of remembering and observing life changing events. The Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden stands as a beacon of hope but also as warning to those who choose not to remember. Unfortunately, as the post World War II events in Cambodia, Darfur, and Rwanda will attest, some have choose not to remember or learn from the horrific events of World War II.  I would argue that remembering these transformative events is not just a Jewish obligation but an obligation shared by all nations, peoples, and races.  I will conclude this article with the moving and thought provoking words of Dr. Michael Berenbaum.  “Never again, not on our watch, and not in my time!”

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