Monday, February 24, 2020

USA: Holocaust Memorials in American Synagogues

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Holocaust Memorial. Chaim Suchman, artist, 2001. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2013.
Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Holocaust Memorial, Chaim Suchman, artist,2001. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2013.
Beverly Hills. California. Temple Emanuel. Main entrance. Holocaust Memorial. Eric May, artist. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2012.
USA: Coast to Coast Holocaust Memorials in American Synagogues

by Samuel D. Gruber

I recently wrote about an impressive synagogue Holocaust memorial – the White Flame of the Six Million by Louise Nevelson at Temple Beth El in Great Neck, New York. That work was unusual in its size and location on the sanctuary bimah. It is just one of an unknown number of varied types of Holocaust monuments and memorials installed in and around American synagogues over the past 70 years.

We tend to use the terms "monument," and "memorial" interchangeably, but the two words have different origins and shades of meaning. Every monument is some kind of memorial, but not all memorials need be monuments. "Monument" comes from the Latin verb "monere;" "to warn." We all need warning of many dangers, from ritual impurity to fascist intolerance to genocidal annihilation. "Memorial" comes from the Latin "memoria" or memory and can have more benign and strengthening meaning. In Hebrew the need to memorialize is made explicit with the command "Zachor;" "Remember." In Hebrew the word "matzevah" refers to a gravestone.

There is a long tradition of including memorials in synagogue design and decoration. Memorial lamps and plaques and donor inscriptions are well known from ancient, medieval, and early modern synagogues. Remembrances of soldiers who served in the First World War were installed in synagogues in the 1920s, such as the one found in the vestibule of Manhattan's illustrious Rodeph Sholom. Additional memorials to soldiers who had served and died were added after the Second World War. The development of memorials to victims of the Holocaust, collectively labeled "The Six Million," however, surpassed all war memorials in number, size, visibility and variety of design.

New York, NY. Rodeph Sholom. Memorial plaque to Word War I soldiers in vestibule. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016

The earliest Holocaust memorials were modest. The first memorial in an American synagogue known to me is at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, New Jersey, dedicated in 1951. The synagogue is an early important work by architect Percival Goodman, and many of its details in design, construction and art were entirely original. The memorial is in a niche located near the rear of the sanctuary and contains two stones from synagogues of Mannheim, Germany, destroyed in Kristallancht in 1938. The inscription reads "To the heroes and martyrs, the known and the unknown who died for the sanctification of the Divine Name". This was site-appropriate, since the rabbi of Millburn had formerly been a rabbi in Mannheim.

Millburn, New Jersey. Congregation B'nai Israel Synagogue. Stones from Mannheim synagogues. Photo: Kampf, Contemporary  Synagogue Art (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1966), 82.
Beverly Hills. California. Temple Emanuel. Main entrance. Holocaust Memorial. Eric May, artist. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2012.
Another early example - and a much more public memorial - is the dramatic relief created by Eric May, an English Jewish doctor who was twice wounded in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. The relief, made of cut, bent and welded oxidized steel, is set on the curved brick exterior wall of the former Rabbi Bernard Harrison Memorial Chapel (now Belle Chapel) to the left of the main entrance of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. The relief represents upraised arms, with the Hebrew word exhorting to “Remember and Never Forget.” It is surrounded by small bronze memorial plaques for individuals and communities, presumably paid for by donations and added over time. The synagogue was the first designed by noted architect Sidney Eisenshtat and completed in 1953. I think the relief was applied soon after. 

More often memorials have been constructed in vestibules or other small interior spaces, as at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and at Temple Beth Shalom Ner Tamid  in Glendale, Wisconsin, a Milwaukee suburb. These memorials--often abstract wall reliefs--exhort congregants to "Remember!". In experience, however, it is more often the case that they soon fade into the decorative background. Only programming and ceremonies can properly turn the "on switch" for their purpose.

Los Angeles, California. Sinai Temple. Holocaust Memorial "To the Six Million" (artist unidentified). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2012.
Glendale (Milwaukee), Wisconsin. Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, Holocaust Memorial (artist unidentified). The Hebrew letters spell Zachor (Remember). Photo: Samuel Gruber, 2004.

Especially since the 1990s memorials have been placed on lawns and in courtyards and gardens which are then transformed into “gardens of the living,” a name often given to Jewish cemeteries. Sometimes the garden itself is planted or simply dedicated as a living memorial to victims of the Holocaust. 

A good example of a lawn memorial is the one designed by Chaim Suchman and dedicated in 2001 by Ben Greenblatt in memory of his parents outside of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont. The memorial is of two parts. First is a well-designed matzevah-like stone with an off-kilter Jewish Star in which is inscribed the Hebrew word "Zachor," below which is a map of Europe showing the location of many major killing sites and a short dedicatory inscription, "In Sacred Memory of the Six Million." The second part is a free-standing metal abstracted human figure of a fiddler with a broken violin who looks toward the stone. Even though the congregation is mostly descended from Jews of Lithuania where the Jewish communities from which they emigrated were entirely destroyed in the Holocaust, the memorial does not focus on this specific history. The inscribed map only includes the killing site of Ponary (Vilnius) to represent Lithuania, when in fact Burlington's Jews came from the Kovna (Kaunus) region in the west, where tens of thousands of Jews were also murdered at the Ninth Fort and elsewhere.

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Holocaust Memorial. Chaim Suchman, artist, 2001. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2013.
As I have previously written, in recent years the congregation has rescued and moved a 1910 synagogue mural from the former Chai Adam Synagogue, and installed the mural in the 1950s synagogue vestibule. This has occasioned a much broader investigation of the community's history in Lithuania and Vermont, and the mural serves as a memorial of both the murdered Old World communities and the history of the New World immigrants. 

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Mural form Chai Adam Synagogue. Ben Zion Black, artist, 1910. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2015.
In courtyards there is, for example, the 2004 Kriah sculpture by Laurie Gross, erected in the courtyard Temple Beth Israel in San Diego, California. But also beginning around the 1980s, more communities installed Holocaust memorials at local Jewish Community Centers rather than in individual synagogues, and these became the focus of local commemorative ceremonies of Yom HaShoah and other anniversaries. While many synagogues continue to install abstract or symbolic memorials, there is an increasing number of figurative memorials, too, often representing and commemorating murdered children. I will explore these in future posts.
San Diego, CA. Temple Beth Israel. Kriah sculpture / Holocaust Memorial by Laurie Gross, 2004. The metal sculpture resembles a torn piece of fabric, a traditional sign of mourning. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
There are, of course, many other examples of American synagogue memorials - probably hundreds. A catalogue of these is much needed, as well as analysis of the history, design and effectiveness of these works. The material included in The Holocaust: An Annotated Bibliography and Resource Guide edited by David M. Szony for the National Jewish Resource Center in 1985 is a good start, but the number of memorials has increased drastically in the last thirty years.

If you have notes or photos of synagogue memorials please send them to me at

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