The DeSoto County Museum will again house a children's Holocaust memorial exhibit to commemorate the 1.5 million children whose lives were lost during the Holocaust. The Unknown Child memorial was dedicated to the museum on Monday night with several special guests in attendance.
The exhibit, designed by architect Doug Thornton of AERC, PLLC in Hernando and created by artist Rick Wienecke from Israel, features a life-sized sculpture of an unknown, abandoned child leaning against a replica of a crematorium door, where Nazis would burn the bodies of victims in their death camps, and a surrounding wall of pennies that represent each child who perished at the hands of the Nazis. The idea for the exhibit was sparked when Horn Lake Middle School teachers Susan Powell and Melissa Wheeler began what became known as "The Pennies Project" in fall 2009. Through the Pennies Project, children collected one and a half million pennies in memory of each child who perished during the Holocaust. Along with the help of a local homeschool group, students were able to reach their goal within three and a half years. The project led to the creation of the Unknown Child Foundation, an organization that was formed to educate audiences about the 1.5 million children who lost their lives and to empower current and future generations to value and keep all children safe regardless of their background.
Robert Long, curator of the DeSoto County Museum, said that the purpose of both the museum and the foundation is to honor the memory of the innocent lives lost due to the horrors of the Holocaust and pointed out that history tends to repeat itself and that we must learn lessons from history and focus on the shared connections that unite us.
"All of us as humanity share in that sorrow, we share in that sadness," Long said. "Those lives were snuffed out, those children who could have gone on to perhaps find the cure for cancer or any number of things. We can't change history but we can honor history by learning from history. If a society or civilization loses that perspective, if they lose that history, they lose a very integral part of themselves. At the end of the day, this museum - any museum - is about telling stories that relate to us as humanity, through all of its triumphs and its glories and its agony and its defeats. It is an important story. It is a story that should not be forgotten."
Long said that it is important to cherish those who came before us and include every community, whether it be early Jewish, African American, Irish or Chinese communities.
"We are all Mississippians," Long said. "We are all DeSoto Countians. We are Americans. We have a shared history, we have a shared heritage. This museum is so vitally important to look at where we've been, looking at where we want to go. It is just a joy to be a part of this organization, these people who have dedicated their lives to preserving our history."
Thornton shared his vision for the memorial project during the dedication ceremony.
"It's been a tremendous honor to be involved in this project," Thornton said. "Our society now is so data-centric and factual and numbers [driven]. You even hear the number 1.5 million children, and we need to take pause and realize that is 1.5 million individuals. That's one thing this project does, and that's one thing that struck me early in the conceptual stages."
Thornton also shared that the pennies have a deeper meaning.
"The children collecting these pennies embodied the penny, they related to the penny, they said 'this penny is a lot like me,' " Thornton said. "A lot of these children were from lower economic families, and they said 'Sometimes I feel like this penny, I feel like I've been looked over or discarded or worthless.' That had to be what these Jewish children felt like who were trying to survive the ghetto or were being put in a boxcar and sent to death. Whether they realized it or not, they were an individual. That sense of worthlessness had to just be overwhelming."
Thornton encourages visitors to put themselves in the position of the victims and think about what they would have done if they had been in that situation, whether they would have helped the children, done nothing or even participated in the atrocities.
"When you're in the center of the memorial, hopefully you're contemplating and looking back out, you're looking into your society and your culture and saying: How can this impact me and what I do in my life? What can I do to prevent this from ever happening again? I want you to contemplate the enormity of it and also touch a single penny and realize that's an individual, that represents an individual person."
Speakers at the ceremony included Tami Kinberg, Liora Livni Cohen and Daniel Shek of Beit Theresienstadt, a museum in Israel that has partnered with the Unknown Child Foundation. The museum tells the story of the prisoners in the Theresienstadt Ghetto who perished in the Holocaust.
"When we first started this, it was just our intention, it was our heart's cry, to do this for the Jewish people because the Jewish people have given so much to the world," said Diane McNeil of the Unknown Child Foundation. "We really wanted to do it for the Jewish people, but then we found out that it's a whole lot better to do it with them and not for them. We really are better together."
Kinberg, who is the general director of Beit Theresienstadt, said that she received an email about a year ago saying that an organization called the Unknown Child was looking for an organization in Israel that deals with the Holocaust to learn from and cooperate with. After she began corresponding and reading about the foundation, she was stunned to see the sculpture, which was the same statue at the entrance of her museum, and was surprised that there were similar statues like her museum's all over the world.
Kinberg explained that the idea for Beit Theresienstadt was sparked in 1955 when survivors of the ghetto, the only ghetto to survive until the end of the war, gathered to celebrate 10 years of liberation and realized that no one was talking about what had happened in the ghettos. The museum opened in 1975 to share the experiences of how Theresienstadt prisoners coped with everyday life and contains documents, drawings, diaries and artifacts that remain from the ghetto, as well as an education center.
Cohen and Shek are both children of Theresienstadt survivors. Cohen, the treasurer of Beit Theresienstadt, was born and raised in Israel and explained that the Holocaust, although very much a part of her life growing up, was never discussed.
Shek, board member at Beit Theresienstadt and a former Israeli diplomat, said that he was "deeply moved" by the fact that there are people in the United States who feel a connection to the survivors and victims of the Holocaust and shared his admiration for the perseverance of those in the Theresienstadt prison camp and their refusal to give up.
"The story of Theresienstadt is really a story of the human spirit," Shek said. "It's some kind of proof that you can enslave bodies, you can enslave people, you can kill them, but you can't really enslave the human spirit. It can stay alive under the most difficult of circumstances."
Shek said that his father felt an obligation to collect simple everyday materials and document everything that happened when he was sent to Auschwitz and explained that a dream to create a place where Jews would not be the minority and could decide their own fate was what kept his parents going through those times. Shek's parents fulfilled this dream, and he said that it is clear that they have an obligation toward their parents and the people who did not survive to continue to tell their stories and build their organization.
"The Holocaust, while it struck the Jewish people more than anything, it struck humanity in general in a manner that we should not allow ourselves to completely recover from," Shek said. "We can't rewrite history and we can't change the past, but we can and we must make the future better than the past."
Years ago, both Cohen and Shek's fathers enlisted the second generation to start thinking about what they could contribute to the future of the museum to ensure the museum would remain after they were gone.
"We have to, as the second generation, keep on telling the story," Cohen said. "That's why we came to the States. We're meeting many people, and we're very lucky to have so many of you listening to us, the stories of the ghettos and the stories of the survivors and the lessons that we have to learn. That's what we bring with us. That's what we carry on."
Also in attendance at the event were the descendants of the original Goodmans, a Jewish family who came to Memphis from Germany in 1849 and moved to DeSoto County in the 1870s during the yellow fever epidemic. Joseph Goodman was a jeweler, dairy farmer and charter member of the DeSoto County Stock Association, bought the old Robertson store from Caffey Robertson and was involved in "almost every aspect of community life." The family is also where Goodman Road gets its name.
The memorial will be kept at DeSoto County's award-winning museum, located at 111 E Commerce Street in Hernando, until it moves to its permanent spot at the Circle G Ranch outside Horn Lake. Circle G is the ranch of Elvis Presley, whose mother was of Jewish descent. The ranch also happens to be located off of Goodman Road.
Brent Walker is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.