Holocaust Memorial redesign tells story with stronger message

October 07, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As Leo Bretholz gazes at the refurbished Holocaust Memorial in downtown Baltimore that was dedicated yesterday, he thinks of the November night nearly 55 years ago when he escaped from a cattle car bound for the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The centerpiece of the new memorial is two concrete monoliths that suggest the boxcars that were used to transport to death camps many of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

"It conveys a message immediately," Bretholz said. "The [old memorial] had to be interpreted. It has to tell a story. Otherwise, it's just concrete, cold stone."

The Baltimore Jewish Council yesterday unveiled the $400,000 redesign of the Holocaust Memorial, a 1-acre open plaza crisscrossed with parallel sets of railroad tracks at Lombard and Gay streets. A triangular concrete platform in the center recalls the shape of the badge that prisoners were forced to wear.

On the sides of the concrete monoliths are written the words of the late Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived the Holocaust but, haunted by its memories, committed suicide a decade ago:

"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 every 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."

The railway motif is especially powerful for Bretholz, who was herded along with about 1,000 others on a train bound for Auschwitz on Nov. 6, 1942, when he and a friend pried loose the metal bars on a window and slipped through. "I escaped from the train and that's why I'm here today," he said. He later learned that 713 of the 1,000 people on board were gassed on arrival.

The most striking change in the redesign was the removal of a grassy hill, which involved hauling away 2,000 cubic yards of dirt. That opened up the memorial on the side facing the Inner Harbor. "Removing the hill was a little like raising the curtain on a stage," said Jonathan M. Fishman, the project's architect.

The council embarked on the redesign after the original Holocaust Memorial, which was built in 1980, had become a haven for prostitutes, drug addicts and the homeless.

"More than seven years of dealing with the problems that beset Baltimore's original Holocaust Memorial have thankfully passed," said Myrna E. Cardin, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "I am very pleased to say that we believe these problems have been resolved by essentially building anew," she said. "Our primary goal was to create a memorial which educates, is contemplative and meaningful."

To assist with the educational mission, Cardin said the adjacent Baltimore City Community College will open a Holocaust resource center by Jan. 1.

Barbara L. Himmelrich, board chairwoman of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said the memorial, in addition to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, also stands as a statement against violence in Baltimore.

"The leadership of our Jewish community and the leadership of Baltimore stand tall today in our collective resolution to face the challenges of repairing the world starting from our own back yard.

"This memorial will stand as a permanent structure to inspire us," she said. "It will serve as a comfort to those who have no other place to mourn."

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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