The Atlanta Jewish community has commemorated Yom HaShoah at the Memorial to the Six Million in Greenwood Cemetery every spring since 1965, and Sunday, April 15, continued that tradition, despite weather ranging from bad to horrible all morning.
But the service also confronted a new reality: The Memorial to the Six Million now and forever serves as a monument to one man, Ben Hirsch.
Hirsch died Feb. 11 at age 85, and it was only right that the hundreds of people gathered at the memorial spent some time thinking about the Holocaust survivor who was its architect.
“I know every day is a difficult day, but today is particularly difficult,” Eternal-Life Hemshech President Karen Lansky Edlin told the Hirsch family.
Edlin, the child of survivors, knew Hirsch most of her life and had the task of paying tribute to a man she saw as a mentor, an adviser, a friend and a confidant.
She recounted the key details of his life that led him to attend a gathering of Atlanta survivors in April 1964 — born in Frankfurt, escaping on the Kindertransport with four of his six siblings after Kristallnacht at age 6, reaching America in 1941, going to high school and college in Atlanta, serving in the U.S. Army, launching his architectural career.
The survivors at that meeting voted to erect a 6-foot-wide marble slab as a Holocaust memorial and place where they could say Kaddish. Hirsch didn’t think that was good enough, and he asked, begged and pleaded for a chance to do something better.
Given only two weeks to propose an alternative, he designed the magnificent monument that earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places 10 years ago.
“He often told me that this was his greatest and proudest accomplishment during his career,” Edlin said. “This was really his baby.”
I was lucky enough to interview Hirsch several times. He was gracious enough to email feedback on the AJT from time to time and to connect me with one of his grandsons for a story.
He was a fan of Jerusalem Post columnist Isi Leibler’s work and a skeptic about claims of parallels between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. He also had that rarest of talents: an ability to admit when he was wrong.
I learned some things about Hirsch from Edlin’s tribute, such as his love of playing and talking about poker. I wish I’d gotten to sit at a poker table with him; the education would have been worth the lost money.
Education is one of his great legacies to Atlanta. As Edlin said, tens of thousands have learned about the Holocaust from the permanent exhibit he designed for the Breman Museum.
“Hemshech, the survivors, the Atlanta community have so much to thank Ben for. He leaves us with permanent legacies for generations to come,” Edlin said. “Ben was a gift to all who knew him and loved him.”
We’ll soon have a chance to repay that gift.
Not long before his death, Edlin and Hirsch talked about the restorative work needed to ensure that the Memorial to the Six Million stands for at least 53 more years. They made a list, and she intends to see it through.
The Folksbiene National Yiddish Theatre is coming to Atlanta from New York on Oct. 7 to help raise money for that restoration, Edlin said. At a time when too many people deny or minimize the Holocaust, the least we can do for Hirsch and the other survivors is shore up the physical reminders of what we all lost to the Nazi evil.