April 19 marked a special if soggy occasion in the history of Jewish Atlanta: the 50th anniversary of the Memorial to the Six Million at Greenwood Cemetery.
The memorial stands as a monument to the perseverance of the Jewish people in general and the generation of Holocaust survivors in particular. Launching the project in September 1964 and breaking ground in early 1965, the survivor organization Hemshech had the memorial ready for Yom HaShoah in April 1965.
None of the survivors involved had been in Atlanta more than 30 years; many had been here less than 15 years. They typically arrived with nothing, sometimes without family or friends. Yet they raised all the money needed for the memorial ($8,500 in the end). One of their own, Ben Hirsch, created the design, brilliant enough to win a national award in 1968 and to gain National Register of Historic Places status in 2008. Another survivor, Abe Besser, built the precise stone structure with its narrowing entrances, walls of different heights and six towering torches.
Hemshech could have stuck with the original, cheaper plan to erect a tombstone monument to meet the survivors’ primary need: a place to say Kaddish for their lost family members. But with Hirsch’s plan and the vision of leaders such as Dr. Leon Rozen and Lola Lansky, the group gave us a powerful interactive experience that should endure as long as Jews are here to care.
What makes this gift to Jewish Atlanta more remarkable is that a large portion of the community didn’t want it.
Southern Israelite Publisher Adolph Rosenberg led the charge against the memorial. “We cannot give our support to any monument at all,” he wrote Nov. 13. 1954, “if the monument is to take the form of a pile of stones.”
Rosenberg’s argument, echoed in letters to the editor, was that the survivors themselves, by thriving and living Jewishly, were the true memorial to the 6 million. It’s a sentiment with a lot of truth in it: Nothing shows our ultimate victory over Hitler, as over so many other despots, more than our survival as a vibrant people.
But the argument rests on a false dichotomy. Survivors did not have a choice between the memorial and full participation in Jewish life. They did not have to cut off community giving to fund the memorial.
To the contrary, we could argue that having a place to mourn helped the survivors thrive and make greater contributions to the Jewish community. Just look at the Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden and the Besser Gymnastics Pavilion at the Marcus Jewish Community Center or the Hirsch-designed Camp Barney Medintz chapel and Breman Museum Holocaust exhibit as examples.
Hirsch says Rosenberg’s hostility toward the memorial reflected more than a philosophical difference on the how to honor the slain. Rosenberg wanted the survivors to leave Europe behind and embrace being Americans. He wanted them to forget so they could move ahead.
Our purpose is not to criticize Rosenberg, without whom we would not be here today. He was an outstanding newspaperman who was committed to the Jewish community.
But with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, we can say he and those who agreed with him were wrong. We are grateful to the survivors who gave all of us a place we can remember the Holocaust any time, in a group or in solitude, now and forever. And we are sorry if this newspaper’s opposition caused pain or distress to the people who most deserved lives of tranquility.