A garden of reminders

Holocaust: Beth Israel Congregation dedicates its Holocaust memorial during a ceremony highlighted by a survivor's memories.

April 12, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Felix Kestenberg, a survivor of the Maidanek, Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, stood before members of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills yesterday at the dedication of their Holocaust Memorial Garden and eloquently reminded them why they had gathered.

"I did not believe that I would survive and that I would be able to stand in front of you and tell you what I and the Jewish population suffered through," the 77-year-old Kestenberg said with an accent from his native Poland.

"We are dedicating a memorial sculpture and garden to remind us, and generations after us, what happened and to remind the world it should not happen again."

Kestenberg and his wife, Veronica, were major benefactors of the garden. The couple, with seven survivors who attended the service, were reminders that the Holocaust is not ancient history.

In his invocation, Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein, spiritual leader of the 800-member congregation, prayed that the world remember the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to occur.

"Never let us forget the ultimate horror of the Holocaust," he said, "which is the silent assent of good people to nationalistic greed and racist zeal gone amok, and compliance of ordinary humans to inhuman orders."

At the dedication, Beth Israel members unveiled the centerpiece of the memorial garden, a colorful 7-foot-high sculpture of a burning bush with images from the Holocaust imprinted into copper flames covered with cloisonne enamel.

In the Book of Exodus, God calls Moses from a bush that is burning, but is not consumed, to liberate the Hebrews. The burning bush has become a symbol of the survival of Judaism.

"I wanted this to be a memorial, but also a statement of faith in our future," said the artist, Marian Slepian, a Bridgewater, N.J.-based enamelist. When she received the letter more than a year ago asking her to submit a proposal, Slepian said she "thought a lot about it and I went to sleep with it on my mind."

"The next morning I awoke with the image full-blown in my head," she said. "I had no uncertainties. I knew exactly what this memorial sculpture should be."

The most challenging part of creating the artwork was its emotional toll. "I found myself identifying thoroughly with those whose dignity and humanity were taken along with their lives," she said.

Slepian was affected while drawing images of the 1.5 million children who were killed in the Holocaust. "The children whose images I drew became my grandchildren, and the grief I felt hung like a black cloud over me," she said.

Kestenberg's testimony gave a human element to the sculpture.

He was born in Radom, Poland, where his family owned a shoe manufacturing plant, and was 18 when World War II broke out. When the Germans occupied Poland, he was sent to a labor camp, where he worked on the fortification of the border with Russia.

"We were not given the proper food," he said. "Our daily ration consisted of a piece of bread, a bowl of soup and a cup of black coffee."

After completing the fortifications, he was transferred to Maidanek labor camp, which he described as "an industrial factory for producing corpses."

"Maidanek is the first camp in which I realized what will happen to the Jews in Europe," he said.

Later, he was sent to Auschwitz in southwest Poland, where he was left with a permanent imprint of his ordeal. "All of us were tattooed on our left arm," he said. "Here we lost our identity and became a number. I became B-2369."

In January 1945, with the Russians approaching, the prisoners were ordered into the courtyard. "We were given a blanket and a loaf of bread, and were told to march to the west toward Germany," Kestenberg said. "We called it the `Death March.' Anyone who could not keep up the pace was shot to death -- not only the inmates, but the SS storm troopers and the Germans that were guarding us."

After a 14-hour march, the prisoners were loaded into cattle cars and transported to Dachau, near Munich, Germany. Ventilation was poor and many died.

When they reached Dachau, "we could not believe what faced us," he said. "Corpses piled up. The crematoriums could not keep up. People were dying from malnutrition."

In April, Kestenberg and his fellow prisoners were liberated by American soldiers. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive. "When I looked in the mirror, I hardly recognized myself. At the time, I weighed about 75 pounds," he said.

"Those were the most crucial and the most trying days of my life," Kestenberg said. "I saw many of my friends and inmates expire and I, myself felt very close to joining them, but my lot was a different one. Many times, during my life, I was searching for an explanation. Why was I chosen and so many had to go? I have not found the answer yet."

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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