COLUMBUS – Hundreds of appreciative and solemn visitors toured the Ohio Holocaust & Liberators Memorial on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse for the first time June 2 following a dedication ceremony in the elegant Ohio Theatre across the street.

The memorial, a broken Star of David its focal point, places a religious symbol on public land.

The ceremony, which ran an hour and 13 minutes, was an object lesson in stagecraft, pageantry and political savvy. Not only was it effective on those levels, it also was moving.

"I think the memorial itself is awesome and thought-provoking and amazing, and I'm thrilled to death we were able to complete it in two years," Joyce Garver Keller, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, said on June 4. "I thought the dedication program was perfect. I thought it was extraordinary."

“I think it was magnificent,” Barbara Turkeltaub, a Canton woman reputed to be the last Holocaust survivor in Stark County, said the following day.

Turkeltaub, who participated in the event’s candle lighting ceremony, said Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich, who launched the project in May 2011, did the right thing.

“People will come,” said Turkeltaub, who spent two years in the ghetto of Vilna in the former Poland (it’s now the capital of Lithuania) in the early 1940s when she was a little girl. “And it’s not only for the 6 million Jews that were murdered.

“When we were born, we were born with love, but hatred had to be taught. This is our responsibility: to teach otherwise.”

Turkeltaub eventually escaped the ghetto with her sister, finding refuge in a Catholic convent. The sisters reunited with their mother two years after the war. She lost the rest of her family to the Holocaust.

After Turkeltaub spoke at a meeting of Holocaust survivors at the state capital two years ago, she said, the governor “told me then that (a memorial would) happen.”

Now, $2.1 million in largely private funds and just more than two years later, the shrine, which also honors “prisoners of war, ethnic and religious minorities, Freemasons, homosexuals, the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and political dissidents who suffered under Nazi Germany,” is open.

Designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, a child of Holocaust survivors, the monument occupies just more than 1,000 square feet on the south lawn of the Statehouse. It’s a powerful tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, the survivors and the soldiers who liberated them from the Nazi death camps.

A sloped walkway of smooth, reddish-gray granite leads to the 18-foot-high monument. Lining the pathway are benches and a limestone wall with an inscription that reads: “If you save one life, it is as if you saved the world.” The wall also features a quote Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem in Israel.

Libeskind’s monument is only the second Holocaust memorial on state-owned land. The first opened last October in Des Moines, Iowa. Ohio’s surmounted controversy to become reality.

After Kasich proposed it in May 2011, former State Sen. Richard Finan of Cincinnati, a fellow Republican and board chair of the Capital Square Review and Advisory Board, called it “inappropriate,” saying a memorial with a Star of David violated the Constitutional separation of church and state.

But a threatened lawsuit never materialized, and Finan resigned June 13 after casting the review board’s sole vote against the memorial.

Ceremony highlights

Just short of a year after that pivotal vote, all was harmony in a ceremony featuring major players, both local and international, along with stirring performances by the Harmony Project Choir and ensembles from the Cleveland Orchestra. One key element was the lighting of 12 candles honoring the 12 million who perished under Nazi rule between 1933 and 1945. The candle lighting included Ohio’s first lady, Karen W. Kasich; Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman; Yaron Sideman, consul general of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, and Turkeltaub.

In an event that started at noon, Kasich and Libeskind spoke of what the project meant to them. Along with Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt, they challenged the audience to view the memorial as a cue to take action to prevent a cataclysm of such fatal magnitude from recurring.

More than 1,500 people attended the ceremony on a day that started gray and dreary but gave way to sunshine by early afternoon. The event drew numerous people from the Cleveland area, including Sam and Rina Frankel of Shaker Heights.

“It was very well done,” Sam Frankel said on June 3. “It was very enlightening to be there. … The monument was done correctly and nicely. The whole thing was very dignified, very pleasant, and we really enjoyed being there.”

“I was extremely touched by that ceremony,” said his wife, Rina. “It was dignified and respectful and sensitive to the feelings of the people who were there, and I thought as far as the program itself, it was appropriate. People spoke to the point and professor Lipstadt really spoke very eloquently about the need to continue to speak out about the history of the Holocaust because, unfortunately, it is being relegated to the archives of history in many places.”

Lipstadt, who was introduced by Leslie H. Wexner, the billionaire owner of L Brands and noted philanthropist, addressed that notion head on. In a speech bordering on fiery, Lipstadt treated the occasion as a test. “I come with the intention to leave you a bit discomforted, troubled, and most of all, challenged,” said Lipstadt, a historian who has spent much of her career combating Holocaust denial.

“I don’t debate Holocaust deniers, just as I don’t expect scientists to debate flat-earth theorists,” she added in remarks encompassing a brief history of Holocaust denial. Cases like one in Rialto, a community in southern California in which the school district asked eighth-graders to determine whether the Holocaust really happened or was “just a propaganda tool,” tell her such efforts are alive and well, and even though that district has “revised” its request and counseled sensitivity training for its teachers, what the teachers actually need is history lessons, she said.

Being comfortable with saying “never again” to events such as the Holocaust is not enough, Lipstadt said, citing genocides in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, Congo and Rwanda. “This memorial is a way station in the process of trying to change ‘never again’ from a comfortable aphorism that easily flows from our mouths to a reality,” she said.

Kasich then entered to sustained applause. In a thoughtfully constructed speech that began anecdotally, delivered citations of inspiration and swelled to preacher-style exhortation, the governor said this memorial is “about the dignity of the human being,” and unless efforts are made to safeguard that notion, events such as the Holocaust might recur.

Those he name-checked included William Wilberforce, a member of the British parliament who, Kasich said, effectively ended slavery in Great Britain; the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (also a touchstone of Wexner’s); Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who is chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel; the writer-philosopher Elie Wiesel; and Martin Luther King Jr.

“When we lose the notion that man is made in the image of God, then we treat human beings as objects – something to be traded, something to be dealt with in a way that does not recognize in any way their humanity,” Kasich said.

“The survivors: Please tell the story in as much detail as you can, because our young people need to know about injustice and how it happened,” Kasich pleaded, underscoring his entreaty with measured, physically expressive gestures.

Noting June 6 will mark the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, or D-Day, he made a similar plea to the liberators, saying the soldiers who opened the gates of the concentration camps must also tell their tales.

“We live in a difficult time” in which “violence has eased its way to attack our children in our schools,” Kasich said, easily segueing into introducing Libeskind, the Polish-born architect who designed the memorial and a man with whom he’s clearly comfortable.

“This is one of the greatest living artists in the world today,” Kasich said. “He travels the world telling stories of iron and steel and glass,” the governor added, leaving the stage to applause as Libeskind strode to the lectern.

“I didn’t go to the library to research the Holocaust,” said Libeskind, who became a United States citizen in 1964. “I didn’t go to the archives. I live in the shadow of the Holocaust because my parents were survivors and I grew up in Poland.” He lost 85 members of his family to the Holocaust, he said, and grew up under a communist regime that institutionalized anti-Semitism.

In perpetrating the Holocaust, the Nazis attempted to create a monstrosity so great nobody would believe it, Libeskind. The event created a “seismic shift” in how human beings were viewed.

He wanted to create a monument that attested both to the Holocaust and to hope. That’s why the Star of David that both breaks and unifies the bronze tablets at the heart of his monument is open, allowing light to shine through – and help people read the story of two cousins who schemed for their lives and made it out of Auschwitz.

His notion was to create “a fracture in the world but also light coming through this fracture,” Libeskind said.

The ceremony ended with a rendition of “America the Beautiful,” Kasich and Libeskind standing center stage front, arm in arm.

Local reaction

Following a video about the progress of the project, the theater doors opened, allowing the crowd to cross the street for their first viewing of the monument.

“This is a memorial to the past, but a challenge for the future,” said Sara J. Bloomfield, executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In a brief interview on the memorial grounds, the former Shaker Heights resident said June 2 was “a day to rededicate ourselves to doing more in the future,” noting the primary message of the museum she runs is that the Holocaust was preventable.

“I think the governor just made a lot of new friends,” said Andrew Sternberg of Shaker Heights. “And not just in the Jewish community.”

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Leo Silberman, a Pepper Pike man in his late 80s who with his brother survived a forced labor camp near Krakow, Poland. “Gov. Kasich deserves a lot of credit, and I’m glad I lived to see this.” Silberman is president of the Kol Israel Foundation.

“It’s an amazing dedication,” said Avi Goldman of South Euclid, a member of the Kol Israel Foundation board of directors, crediting Kasich for taking the time “to have something like this in our state capital.”

“There were outstanding speakers,” said Leon Shear, also of South Euclid, who spent two years in Auschwitz when he was 14. “This was an extremely moving situation.

Shear said that whenever he travels to a Holocaust museum or memorial, he says a special prayer for the perished: “I haven’t forgotten you.”

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