Urban ills ravage Baltimore's Holocaust Memorial

November 26, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

On her pilgrimages to the Holocaust Memorial, Deli Strummer remembers the American soldier who rescued her, the young man who took one look at her starved, scarred and humiliated body and instinctively gave her the shirt off his back.

For the Austrian-born survivor of five concentration camps, the stark concrete and stone monument in front of a grove of trees in downtown Baltimore represents the generous strength of her liberators. Yet, even as she reflects on the darkest days of her life and celebrates her love for America, she cannot help but mourn another tragedy.

The shrine dedicated to the 6 million Jews who perished in Nazi concentration camps is desecrated daily. Broken beer bottles, crumpled bags and discarded syringes litter the ground. The narrow walkways reek of urine. City custodians pick up trash and dirty bedding each day.

Perhaps as much as bearing witness to the horror that was the Holocaust, it is a monument to the neglect and decay of a major East Coast city at the end of the 20th century.

The blemished memorial has come to symbolize the failures of a city government and a nonprofit organization to cope with society's increasingly intractable problems. For many years, city officials, Jewish community leaders and homeless advocates have been aware of the desecration but have been unable to end it. All say their best cleanup efforts are ruined within hours.

"It isn't even anger to see this; it brings tears to my eyes. But at the same time, I used my intelligence and said this is a different world," said Mrs. Strummer, 72, who came to the United States in 1950, five years after being freed from the Mauthausen camp in Austria.

Now, the Baltimore Jewish Council, which spent 12 years planning the $200,000-plus memorial, wants to tear it down and create a new monument at the opposite end of the plaza. Four architectural proposals to shift the monument next to the statue of Holocaust victims being consumed by flames are under review. The redesign is expected to cost at least $250,000.

These days, the block-long memorial next to Baltimore City Community College often appears forgotten. Visitors are scarce during the week. Even the somber ceremony of Yom Hashoa, the Day of Remembrance, has been moved because of the stench and disrepair.

The memorial at Water, Gay and East Lombard streets is two blocks from Baltimore's glittering Inner Harbor but is tucked behind a small hill on a deserted side street.

North of the memorial is The Block, the downtown adult entertainment zone, and to the east is the shuttered Fishmarket nightclub complex, which has been a drain on the city's ambitious plans to pump life into the area.

City cleanup crews stepped up their daily efforts at the Holocaust Memorial after a public outcry in the summer of 1991. The Baltimore Jewish Council responded by debating and then rejecting two options -- fencing in the memorial or moving it to another part of town.

"It's a problem caused by what society has become, which has conspired with a poor design that allows these things to happen," said the council's executive director, Arthur C. Abramson. "It's tragic, and there's no simple answer."

Has it really come to this point that a simple monument cannot stand unblemished in a big city?

In New York City, Grant's Tomb has fallen into such disrepair that the descendants of President Ulysses S. Grant threatened this year to remove his remains.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Edward G. Rendell pledged in his 1991 campaign to restore some shine to City Hall, a century-old landmark that became known for its stench and scaffolding. Mayor Rendell kept his promise, getting down on his hands and knees to scrub the women's room, while 1,500 other volunteers swept and painted dusty corridors.

The plaza in front of Baltimore's City Hall also is littered with trash and smells of urine each morning. The six-member parks crew that takes care of all downtown plazas must wash the cobblestones before cleaning the Holocaust Memorial.

Nevertheless, the Jewish Council is optimistic about combating the ravages of the city simply by redesigning the memorial in a more visible location.

"Right now, there are all these places concealed from the public. If you moved it toward the front and made it more garden-like and serene, you wouldn't have these secretive places for people to do these acts," said Alvin Fisher, a retiree who pushed for the memorial but says he never liked the design.

Others fear that even a radical design change would not end the desecration. Fred Finnerty, supervisor of the custodians of the memorial, says only a fence will help. Fifth District Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector agrees that without lighting and possibly a fence, the memorial could be doomed to "the same problems you have everywhere downtown."

Homeless advocates say the city must provide public bathrooms downtown and create more drug treatment and job programs.

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