Because yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day--and also the day President Trump started banning refugees from our shores-- I am re-posting a photo essay I published seven years ago about a truly moving and horrifying work of art--the Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. It's at 1933 Meridian Avenue in South Beach, Florida, only blocks from where I am right now. It's open 365 days a year. I think I'm going back there today, even though it is certain to leave me in tears again.
Last month in Miami Beach I was riding in a taxi when I saw out of the window a remarkable sight—a forty-two-foot-tall sculpture of a hand reaching skyward out of a reflecting pond. And scrambling up the wrist were what seemed to be life-sized human figures.
One of the things I collect is images of hands—everything from a door knocker to anti-evil eye talismans to a wooden “Hand of God” with a saint perched atop each finger and a gash in the palm. I have patterns for the henna designs painted on the hands of an Indian bride, for example, before her wedding, in the mehndi ritual. So I knew I had to learn more about the gigantic hand I had come across while riding on Meridian Avenue near Dade Boulevard in South Beach.
I learned that it is a memorial, dedicated to the six million Jewish victims of the holocaust. After four years of construction, it was dedicated by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel on February 4, 1990.
Entrance is free. As I walked through the sculpture garden, like everyone else who has seen it, I was deeply moved by a history that I had heard many times before, but never in such a personal way. As I followed the trail through the sunlit sculpture park, I was walking from the beginning to the end of the holocaust years and retracing the journey of so many victims—beginning with fear and foreboding and ending in despair and death.
Because I found myself walking through a tunnel that becomes narrower, and then emerging into a scene of desperate agony, surrounded by life-sized naked figures in bronze, the experience seemed terrifyingly real, despite the towering palm trees and the water lilies in the serene reflecting pool-- an ironic contrast to the hysterical grief and fear portrayed within.
The huge bronze hand (which has an Auschwitz camp number carved on the wrist) and the one hundred figures were designed by Kenneth Treister and cast in Mexico City by Fundicion Artistica.
While walking through the exhibition, I felt as though I was interacting with the statues—sharing their fear and agony. And after the visit, I felt changed, certainly in my understanding of the holocaust. I think that is the definition of successful art—you interact with it and it leaves you changed.
At the beginning of the journey is this statue of a mother and two children beneath a quotation from Ann Frank: “…that in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Then you walk along a black granite wall that summarizes in words and photographs the history of the holocaust from 1939 to 1945. At the end of the wall is engraved a poem and a hymn from the ghetto.
Next you enter a tunnel, starting with a dome that has a stained glass Star of David overhead with the word “Jude”. As the memorial’s historian Helen Feigen writes, it’s “the patch of ignominy”.
You’re now in the square tunnel, carved with names of the death camps, that becomes smaller as you continue. You hear the sound of children’s voices singing songs from the concentration camps. All you can see at the end of the tunnel is a small, seated child, wailing and reaching out for help. As you walk toward the light, the voices of the children get louder and louder. Then you emerge from the tunnel to find yourself staring up at the immense hand, crawling with people in agony. You walk among free-standing figures who are all reaching for help.
According to Helen Feigen, the historian, “A giant outstretched arm, tattooed with a number from Auschwitz, rises from the earth, the last reach of a dying person. Each visitor has his own interpretation ... some see despair ... some hope ... some the last grasp for life . . . and for some it asks a question to God... ‘Why?’”
At this point, you walk around the giant hand, examining the family groups, young people trying to comfort their elders, children trying to soothe their younger siblings, mothers trying to hand their babies to safety. But no one is safe and there is no way out. And the visitor is a part of the scene.
Then you notice the black granite walls engraved with names of the victims.
Finally, when you’ve had enough of this scene of despair, you continue on to the final piece of sculpture, which is the same mother and two children seen at the beginning, but now they’re lying dead underneath another quotation from Ann Frank: "ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us only to meet the horrible truths and be shattered:"
Then you are free to contemplate the peace and beauty of the reflecting pool and the sunny sky, and eventually to return to the tropical scenery of Miami Beach. But you can’t shake the feelings that you had standing below that giant hand, imagining the stories of all those victims who were still trying to help each other in the hour of their death.