A memorial's renewal Holocaust monument set for redesign

April 12, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

The huge slabs of concrete that made up the Holocaust Memorial in downtown Baltimore never really spoke to Leo Bretholz.

On his pilgrimages, he wondered what tourists and schoolchildren would think looking at the cold, imposing monument that had been despoiled by trash, condoms and dirty needles.

This week, Jewish leaders began a $400,000 overhaul that includes transforming the monolith into a more literal and readily understood symbol of the Holocaust: a railroad freight car.

"We hope it will be more open, a little more friendly to the eye, a little more thought-provoking," says Bretholz, 76, a proponent of the redesign. Bretholz escaped with a friend from a freight train bound for Auschwitz in 1942; he later learned that 773 of the thousand people on the train were gassed upon arrival.

When it reopens this summer, the once blemished and often-forgotten plaza two blocks from the Inner Harbor will have been rebuilt into a strikingly visible shrine to the 6 million Jews who perished in Nazi concentration camps.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which began work earlier this week after getting the final building permits, hopes to put up in block letters on the redesigned monolith a haunting passage from author Primo Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz."

"On both sides of the track, rows of red and white lights appeared as far as the eye could see.

"With the rhythm of the wheels, with human sound now silenced, we awaited what was to happen.

"In an instant, our women, our parents, our children disappeared. We saw them for a short while as an obscure mass at the other end of the platform.

"Then we saw nothing more."

Drivers on Lombard Street will be able to see the words of Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist who chronicled his experiences in the death camp, then committed suicide in 1987. The Jewish Council is seeking his estate's permission to use the passage.

Visitors will enter the block-long memorial next to Baltimore City Community College from Lombard Street, a major thoroughfare, instead of Water Street, a deserted side road.

At the entrance is the statue of Holocaust victims being consumed by flames, which was dedicated in 1988 in memory of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, in 1938, when the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes, shops and synagogues.

A walkway in the shape of an isosceles triangle, a symbol for victims of political oppression, will lead from the flaming sculpture to the freight car. On each side will be 1940s-era railroad tracks donated by CSX Inc.

The terraced path will cross railroad tracks blooming with flowers and ornamental grasses and flanked by new trees.

Yet for all its symbolism, the redesign has a practical goal: to end the monument's desecration.

"We did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past," says Arthur C. Abramson, the council's executive director, for whom the monument became an "albatross," a source of constant complaints from Baltimoreans and tourists shocked by the litter and stench.

Bright lights, also in the style of the World War II era and scattered throughout the plaza, will be turned on each night, as well as spotlights trained on Levi's words. The freight car will be surrounded by wrought-iron fencing 8 feet high.

But the fence only surrounds that section, not the entire memorial. Lynn B. Katzen, the council's associate director, says, "We don't want to fence out the community."

Built 17 years ago after a decade of planning, the $200,000-plus monument of concrete in front of a hilly grove of trees was designed to represent "the intrusion of a cold, dark, brutal" force -- the Nazi war machine -- in the lives of unsuspecting victims. Thousands of people paused on the November afternoon it was dedicated to look at the grim list of concentration camps.

Yet from its inception, some Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors worried about the abstract design and the location -- close to the newly opened Harborplace but also near The Block, the city's red-light district.

By the late 1980s, when the sculpture was added, the Holocaust Memorial bore the ravages of urban neglect and decay. The secluded walkways had become a nightly refuge for the homeless and a shooting gallery for drug addicts. City custodians picked up broken bottles and crumpled bags each day. The entire memorial reeked of urine.

For at least three years, Jewish leaders have been raising money and working on a redesign. The retaining wall was demolished last summer and the hill flattened.

Initially, some had proposed moving the monument, now on land leased from the community college for $1 a year, to another place in the city -- or even the suburbs.

The decision to stay in Baltimore has pleased city leaders.

Says Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents Northwest Baltimore: "It's important for the city. Hopefully, being on the right side of the street, turned the right way, will make all the difference in the world."

Though most are strongly in favor of the redesign, a few Jewish leaders have private doubts over whether it will end all traces of desecration. They say drug addicts and the homeless may still use the memorial.

"It might make it a less comfortable place to sleep at night," says Jeff Singer, an advocate for the homeless. "But unfortunately, the only real solution is [shelter] alternatives."

Still, for Holocaust survivors such as Bretholz and Deli Strummer, who lived through five concentration camps, the significance is in the message for generations to come.

Strummer recalls the days she spent crammed into railroad cars, "the agony, the smell, the stink, the homelessness, people dying around you. You couldn't sit down; you couldn't lie down."

A renaissance of the memorial, she says, is "another chance."

"We can't bring our people back, but we certainly keep their memories."

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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