One of the most jarring images in South Beach is of a human arm reaching into the heavens, its tattooed number clearly visible, emaciated figures climbing upon it, trying to escape some clearly horrific destiny. If you have found this arm, you have found Miami Beach’s Holocaust Memorial.
This is its story: As survivors of the holocaust started to get older, their bodies savaged years earlier by concentration camp life, they were ill-prepared to handle the cold winters of the American northeast. Many retired to South Beach for the warm weather and the close-knit urban fabric that it offered. With such a large group of survivors in one place, the idea of a holocaust memorial materialized. Dr. Helen N. Fagin and nine fellow survivors and supporters started to accomplish just such a task. At the time, there were no other holocaust memorials in the U.S. In fact, there was only one other in the entire world, which was Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
The South Beach memorial would be both groundbreaking and symbolic. The task was even more challenging because psychologically, many of the victims had no desire to talk about the holocaust. A committee led by Norman Braman, a successful local automobile dealer, was formed to advance the holocaust memorial project. In 1980, the committee approached Ken Treister, an accomplished author, architect, painter, sculptor and photographer. Besides asking him to join the committee, they also asked him to design the memorial itself.
After completing the original design sketches, Ken Treister, along with Norman Braman, approached George Segal, a sculptor noted for his realistic cast figures. Meanwhile the committee worked on selecting an appropriate site for the memorial. One particular location showed a lot of promise. The site in question had some old homes that had just been torn down. Additionally, it was only a stone’s throw away from the Miami Beach Convention Center, assuring a steady stream of potential visitors. It even backed up to a local garden club, a remaining vestige of Miami Beach’s gentile community, a place where the ladies would socialize with box lunches.
Who would have guessed the controversy that such an ideal site would bring.
But controversial it was! One reason is that the survivors were stigmatized. Many had thick eastern European accents. They came to the U.S. traumatized by their experiences in Europe and few were able to climb the social ladder here. They certainly had few centers of either power or influence. Sometimes it simply came down to the fact that the garden club didn’t want a monument to such an ugly chapter in human history at its back door. Therefore, a committee was formed to oppose the memorial. On a cultural level, the controversy wasn’t cut and dry because the committee opposed to the memorial had some Jewish members. Nevertheless, the battle lines were drawn: the garden club committee versus thousands of holocaust survivors. The fight for the memorial was about to get ugly. Referring only to the hand-sketched drawings that Ken Treister had prepared for the memorial design, saying that the community would be “ashamed” of the memorial.
The City of Miami Beach laid down the gauntlet; a community meeting would be called to settle the controversy. Ken Treister, under tremendous artistic and emotional pressure resulting from the memorial project, could not bring himself to attend the community meeting. The City Council chambers were full. Half of the room were opponents of the memorial, the other half were holocaust survivors.
The City Council stated up front that everyone would be given an equal chance to speak. The presentations wore on. Toward the end of the night, a local woman approached the microphone. She told the audience that she had been a child prodigy on the violin; her young husband had been a concert pianist. She told the audience that the Nazis had the arms of both her and her husband cut off. She told them that building the memorial “will give me back my arm.” The room wept. The City Commission and the Mayor pledged to build the memorial.
Back on the design front, Ken Treister, searching for an affordable sculptor, found himself in Taipei, Taiwan, wearing a kimono and meeting with an artist who didn’t know what a Jew was and wasn’t aware of the holocaust. This obviously wasn’t going anywhere, but a solution was in the works. The committee found a lady who wanted to help. She was married to an heir of the Don Q Rum fortune. Going to Mexico, they were invited to the foundry of the Fundación Artística, replete with anvils and fire, which took up two square blocks in Mexico City.
Treister and his wife would dedicate the next five years of their life to living in Mexico and advancing the project out of this foundry. After initial sketches, they decided to build a ¼ sized model. This process alone took over 18 months. When the model was completed and satisfactory, Ken mass-produced full-scale faces, arms and legs out of wax. Not wanting the wax to melt in the heat of the foundry, he built pools and threw the wax figures in them at night. Floating around the pools, the body parts unwittingly imitated the holocaust. The illusion continued with the foundry kilns creating smoke plumes as molten bronze was poured in, melting the wax; and tears were unintentionally created when the patinas were applied to the finished faces.
Finally, the 42-foot high plaster original was divided into five slices. They were then finished and loaded on three trucks along with all the bronze body parts. When the caravan reached Miami Beach, Ken Treister had the memorial assembled. Starting with a steel structure strong enough to withstand a hurricane, the arm sections were then mounted to the structure using a crane to lift them in place. The joints were ground to make the arm look seamless.
The memorial joined perfectly. The engineering was flawless. For the first time, Ken Treister’s sketches were a reality. His first reaction was to worry about the memorial’s impact on the public. He had chosen to show the figures nude to demonstrate how the Nazis dehumanized their victims. Addressing the other design elements of the memorial, Ken Treister turned his attention to the panels and the names along the entrance to the central circle where the 50-foot sculpture of the arm is located.
He used photographs from Yad Vashem to draw out raw emotion. He didn’t want the images to appear cemetery-like when they were etched into the large pieces of granite. There were certain chemicals that were used for the etchings. A teacher of this rare process resided in Washington State. He even agreed to move with his wife and children to Miami Beach to dedicate the needed time to do the etchings. The process required a very dry space and Florida’s humid environment was not naturally conducive to this purpose. So, a wedding tent was erected and the giant black panels from Italy were placed inside it. When a tropical wind blew the tent down the very next day, the exasperated teacher decided to leave.
As a compromise, Ken Treister sent the panels to the State of Washington.
Through the etching process, a Nazi photograph memorializes the humiliation of a Polish Jew forced to wash the streets under guard. The photograph is sent to the German Archives where it is captured by Americans, sent to Jerusalem, enlarged in Boston and etched in granite in Miami Beach. The sun shining through the Jewish star makes scratches of light on the wall in the dome, imitating people attempting to escape the gas chambers; the sun in the morning, striking the invisible smoke from the eternal flame, casts a shadow of a flame on the ground mimicking a crematoria flame; the Ipewood used for the trellises over the walkway appear by accident like railroad trellises on the floor. These would be the railroads that help people escape and that round them up again.
Ken Treister’s figures were derived from his study of holocaust pictures. He wanted to capture the two emotions that characterized the holocaust the most: love and anguish. So, he shows a mother handing her child up in desperation to save the child. He shows a couple, after 50 years of marriage, saying goodbye as they are about to die. He recasts their original figures so that they are looking at each other as they do so. He wanted to capture the look of love between them.
Most poignantly, as we initially enter the memorial, we meet a mother and her two young children. With all the other images and emotions that confront us, we are allowed to forget about them for the moment. As we exit the memorial, the mother and children are dead at our feet.