The story of the Holocaust, as well as the story of New Haven’s memorial to it, were remembered Thursday at an event at New Haven’s City Hall.
Members of the community gathered to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the New Haven Holocaust Memorial and to celebrate “Memory and Legacy,” a new exhibit that honors Holocaust survivors and explains how the city’s memorial came to be. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano delivered the keynote speech at the event, and six Holocaust survivors placed roses to honor those who died.
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The array of community members present, including representatives from the Jewish community and the greater New Haven community, reflected the story of the memorial itself: It brought together many different types of people 30 years ago, and resulted in the first Holocaust memorial in the United States built on public land.
“It’s a tragedy that very few people know the story of the New Haven Holocaust Memorial,” DeStefano said. “Jews, non-Jews, immigrants and long-time residents of New Haven came together and built this memorial, and this exhibit is a way for all of us to remember that story.”
Doris Zelinsky ’71, president of the Greater New Haven Holocaust Memory group, became involved with the cause after seeing the time-worn memorial fall into disrepair. The non-profit organization was formed two years ago to restore and maintain the memorial, and it has funded various improvements, including better protection for ashes from Auschwitz present at the memorial.
In addition to physically repairing the structure, the organization partnered with the New Haven Oral History Project to record over 25 hours of oral history telling the story of memorial’s genesis. Members of the project created the “Memory and Legacy” exhibit to tell this story, and to bring attention to both the Holocaust and the memorial itself.
“We want the exhibit to be a touchstone to create awareness about the dangers of hate,” Zelinsky said. “We want to use the stories of both the Holocaust and the memorial itself to show communities, and especially schoolchildren, how ordinary people can get extraordinary things done.”
Marvin Cohen, a lifelong New Haven resident who designed the layout of the memorial, was one of those present at the ceremony who was involved with the original project. He said he designed the memorial with specific symbolism in mind; the base was created in the shape of the Star of David, with six shrubs representing the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
“A lot of the people involved [in the project] were Jews, but many were also non-Jews, which shows how this memorial has brought together many people,” Cohen said. “The memorial and exhibit are part of a process of ongoing education, and we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Giorgina Vitale, a Holocaust survivor who hid in Italy during the war but later immigrated to New Haven, has also been involved with the project since it started 30 years ago. As a member of the Jewish Federation, she worked closely with the architect, the mayor and others to bring attention to the need for a memorial honoring those who died in the war.
“As more time passes by, there will be fewer and fewer survivors,” Vitale said. “We may not be around, but hopefully this will continue to stand and to speak to young people.”
The New Haven Holocaust Memorial is located at Whalley and West Park avenues. The traveling exhibit will be in City Hall until the end of September, and will then continue to tour around the state.