Two years ago, America’s first Holocaust memorial built on public land — located on the corner of Whalley and West Park avenues — was falling apart and nearly forgotten. After three decades of exposure to New England weather, the monument’s metal had begun to rust and peel, and the site’s cobblestone base, evocative of Old World shtetl streets, had filled with cracks. At the monument’s center, a metal cover protecting interred ashes from the Auschwitz concentration camp had worn and fallen off. Few New Haven residents remembered the monument; fewer visited it.
But for one Elm City denizen who did, restoring the memorial became a calling. Doris Zelinsky ’71, a longtime New Haven resident and child of two Holocaust survivors, visited the memorial in 2005 and noticed its deterioration. After assembling a group of friends and supporters, Zelinksy founded a nonprofit corporation, Greater New Haven Holocaust Memory, dedicated to the memorial’s restoration. This April — which marks the monument’s 30-year anniversary — Zelinsky’s foundation, in conjunction with the New Haven Oral History Project, will present a multimedia exhibit entitled “Memory & Legacy” chronicling the history of the memorial.
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The exhibit, which Zelinksy hopes will travel around New Haven following its stay at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, will include oral histories of the memorial’s creation as well as archival photographs and drawings. It was designed by Eric Epstein ARCH ’77, a local architect and Zelinsky’s partner in GNHHM, and includes 12 informational panels arranged in the form of the Star of David. The oral histories are the work of two Yale students who, under the guidance of Andy Horowitz ’03, director of the NHOHP and a lecturer in the History Department, interviewed a dozen people active in creating the monument.
Horowitz said the oral history format is especially suited to chronicling the memorial’s genesis.
“One thing oral history does is it allows us to learn about people that are not part of the traditional historical record,” he said. “We have some newspaper articles about the Holocaust memorial, but other than that there are pretty scant records of why the survivor community in New Haven decided to do this. Oral history allows us to find out how it happened.”
What he found — and what longtime New Haven residents like Zelinsky and Epstein remember — is the story of a courageous group of Jews and non-Jews determined to memorialize for posterity the horrors of the Holocaust.
Even before World War II, New Haven’s Jewish community had established itself in city commerce and politics. After the war, a number of Holocaust survivors moved to New Haven, attracted by local relatives and the city’s vibrant Jewish community. Though these survivors and other community members organized annual Holocaust remembrance events, by the late 1970s, some survivors worried that New Haven Jews were not doing enough to remember.
A group of survivors and other residents quickly transformed their concern into action. Zelinsky, who was working in the New Haven Mayor’s Office at the time, remembers hearing from a fellow employee about a group of survivors who came to talk to then-Mayor Frank Logue ’48.
“The mayor’s assistant [current Congresswoman] Rosa DeLauro called me and said, ‘There are people here talking to the mayor who sound like your mother,’” Zelinsky said. “Within months, they had built the first Holocaust monument on public land.”
The monument’s dedication in October 1977 brought together New Haven residents, Holocaust survivors and a number of speakers — Jerzy Kosinski, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Logue among them. Epstein said he still recalls Kosinski’s speech, which included passages from the memoirs of both a concentration camp survivor and a Nazi officer.
“It was a powerful and appalling speech,” Epstein said. “It outraged people because it was so raw, the discrepancy in the worldview so shocking. When Doris came to me for help with the monument, that was what I remembered: Kosinski’s speech.”
As the years passed, the monument slowly fell victim to harsh New England weather and communal neglect. Still, both Zelinsky and Epstein continued to appreciate the memorial’s significance and were determined to protect it. Epstein said that though he stopped at the memorial only infrequently, he noticed that some people had placed stones on the monument in remembrance of victims of the Holocaust.
“That means that people had been coming there and thinking about people and leaving touchstones at that place,” he said. “People do go there to pray and remember.”
Zelinsky, Epstein and Horowitz hope that the “Memory & Legacy” exhibit will inspire New Haven residents to remember the memorial’s important role in preserving memory. Zelinsky said she also hopes the exhibit will bring exposure to her foundation and will help her raise the remaining amount of money needed to restore and endow the memorial.
Though $25,000 of restoration and landscaping work has already been done on the monument, the foundation is only about halfway to its fundraising goal of $100,000. It hopes to use some of that money to bring a curriculum about prejudice to local middle schools.
The exhibit will be on view at the JCC from April 15 to June 30.