BOSTON — Several hundred Bostonians gathered to rededicate the New England Holocaust Memorial Tuesday following an act of vandalism committed two weeks ago.
According to authorities, Boston resident James Isaac threw a rock at one of the site’s 54-foot-high glass towers after midnight on June 28, shattering a 9-foot-tall panel into thousands of shards. Eye-witnesses quickly pointed out Isaac to police, and the 21 year old was arrested and charged. There is also video evidence of the crime taken from 24-hour surveillance of the site.
During remarks before a replacement panel was unveiled yesterday, it was noted that Isaac might have acted out of indifference exacerbated by mental illness, as opposed to anti-Semitism. Former Boston city council head Mike Ross called for increased vigilance when it comes to dealing with prejudice.
“We must use this episode to call for unity,” said Ross, whose father, survivor Steve Ross, founded the Shoah memorial in 1995. “Let us rededicate ourselves to speaking out for the other,” said Ross, a long-time advocate for local survivors and member of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s leadership council. The audience included faith leaders from the city’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.
Ross cited the Anti-Defamation League’s report that anti-Semitic incidents surged by 86% during the first quarter of 2017. In contrast to this alarming news, Ross praised the passersby who “helped protect our shared values” by identifying the vandal for police two weeks ago. He also thanked the city’s mayor and citizens for their “impeccable” response to the incident.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who led a high-profile trade mission to Israel six months ago, also spoke at Tuesday’s unveiling.
“We are here to renew and rededicate this memorial and speak to its importance along the Freedom Trail,” said Baker, a popular Republican governor in a Democrat-heavy state. “We are all in this together,” said the governor, adding the memorial speaks to “the importance of people’s individuality.”
Organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the ceremony’s highlight was brief testimony from Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, former president of the local survivors’ organization. With the six glass towers behind him, the 92 year old recounted the murder of his family in October of 1942.
As the Nazis conducted a “selection” of Jews in the Starachowice ghetto, south of Warsaw, Arbeiter’s father insisted the adolescent leave the “family” line with children and the elderly, and join what appeared to be the group bound for labor. Had he not switched lines, Arbeiter would have been murdered at Treblinka along with his loved ones, he said.
Participating in yesterday’s rededication helped Arbeiter “restore a part of Jewish life,” he said. For 75 years, the erudite leader has kept in mind his father’s final words to him that day in the ghetto: keep your Jewish faith and traditions.
In 1993, Arbeiter and other survivors buried a capsule at the site of the future memorial. Written on pieces of paper were the names of murdered loved ones, almost none of whom have graves beyond ashes scattered across fields in eastern Europe. Since opening in 1995, the memorial has been the backdrop for Yom HaShoah commemorations each spring. Held on-site each summer is an annual vigil for LGBTQ victims of the Nazis, and recent months have seen pro-refugee gatherings there.
For Janet Stein, current president of the survivor group, the rededication under grey skies was “a day of empowerment” for the community. Stein praised several World War II veterans in the crowd, including familiar faces from past gatherings. Also present was Boston’s former mayor, 77-year-old Ray Flynn, who helped obtain the long, narrow strip of land on which the memorial is built. Not far from the buried capsule with victims’ names, a Liberators’ Monument was added to the complex in 2003.
Thousands of people tread through this place of remembrance each week, many of them pausing to read brief survivor testimonies etched inside the towers. Situated along Boston’s history-packed, 2.5 mile Freedom Trail, the complex was built next to tourist spots and the city’s government center. A large portion of visitors do not know they are passing through a memorial until confronted with texts. There are no photographs or explicit imagery.
The glass towers are etched with 2,280,960 seven-digit numbers. At the base of each edifice, the name of a death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland is inscribed on granite. Deep pits with glowing embers were fitted below each tower, and mechanized steam rises up through gratings past visitors’ feet. These haunting effects conjure imagery of the former death camps, including the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Arbeiter was imprisoned after the murder of his family.
“Our entire city was affected,” said Mayor Marty Walsh of the vandalism committed last month. “This memorial stands as a symbol of democracy and freedom and that we will not forget what happened during the Holocaust. It’s our duty as a city to spread that message,” said Walsh.