ATLANTIC CITY, NJ – Against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, on a stretch of boardwalk shared by James’ Saltwater Taffy and the oddball museum Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, a group of local Jews is looking to build something a bit out of place: a beachside Holocaust memorial.
Though Atlantic City is better known for gambling, nightlife and entertainment, it is the throngs of visitors and the boardwalk’s foot traffic that has inspired those behind the project, still several years away.
“Yes, it’s a most unusual place to find a Holocaust memorial,” said Jane Stark, who serves as vice president of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial’s executive committee. “Therein comes the ‘Why not?’” The memorial would be a teaching tool for tolerance, she said. “This is what we hope a monument to the six million will inspire.”
Last week, to mark the annual observance of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, nearly three dozen survivors, civic leaders and interfaith clergy gathered at the site of the future Holocaust memorial.
With the support of local politicians, who donated the site, the committee has signed on the architects Daniel Libeskind and Richard Meier as judges for the project’s design competition.
“This is where it’s going to be,” said Rabbi Gordon Geller, the main force behind the project, turning toward the ocean as he swept his arm across the horizon. Geller, who is the rabbi of Temple Emeth Shalom in nearby Margate City, N.J., was dressed in a pinstriped suit and tie, wearing wire-rimmed sunglasses befitting a rabbi on the Jersey Shore.
Geller said he got the idea for the project seven years ago, from a local elected official and World War II veteran. He enlisted the help of Kaleem Shabazz, communications director of Masjid Mohammed’s Islamic Center of Atlantic City. Who proposed the boardwalk site?
“I want to say I did, but I think he did,” said Shabazz.
Two years ago, the city donated the boardwalk site to the memorial’s planners, giving them three years to get approval for their design and start building. Despite some skeptics, the site’s organizers point to the success of the nearby New Jersey Korean War Memorial, built a decade ago on the boardwalk near Park Place.
Last week, Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo T. Langford, an honorary chair of the memorial, addressed those gathered, saying the memorial would “make Atlantic City all it can and should be.”
He told The Jerusalem Post
that Atlantic City’s tourism industry – 35 million people visit each year – made the boardwalk an ideal spot for the memorial. “The boardwalk is the most densely traveled pedestrian thoroughfare in the nation,” he said. “If you’re going to have a memorial, there’s no better place to have it.”
Plans for the memorial are coinciding with Atlantic City’s multi-million dollar boardwalk refurbishment plans, and Shabazz said the Holocaust memorial would be in the heart of a revitalized boardwalk. But for the Holocaust memorial, with an estimated price tag of $4-5 million, it is no small feat.
Earlier this month, 820 architects worldwide submitted entries in the design competition. In addition to Libeskind and Meier, other jurists include James E. Young, Wendy Evans Joseph, Clifford Chanin and Michael Berenbaum. Ten finalists will be selected by the end of the May, with the final winner determined after the High Holy Days.
Geller said the designs had to meet certain criteria, including physical guidelines. (The memorial is not to exceed 60 feet in height and width or 40 feet in depth.) It should not be stark, it must be educational and it should blend in with the motif of the boardwalk.
Most pressing is the existential deadline of Holocaust survivors, said Geller. “Every month we are losing the eyewitnesses, the survivors,” he said.
Indeed, longtime Atlantic City resident and Holocaust survivor Cyla Kowenski, 84, often tells Rabbi Geller she hopes the memorial is built “during my lifetime.” Kowenski, whose husband of 59 years died six months ago, was liberated from Vilna in 1945 and moved to Atlantic City to help run a chicken farm. She said she hopes the memorial will inspire people to speak up against genocide and not forget the Holocaust. “I wish they’d have spoken up in the ’30s and ’40s,” she said.
On the boardwalk, shopkeepers and passersby watched the memorial service last week with looks of bemusement and curiosity.
Charlene McKoy was ringing up customers at James’ Saltwater Taffy during the service; a few people trickled in afterward for something sweet. A Holocaust memorial is a good idea, McKoy agreed, citing the throngs of visitors who populate the boardwalk, especially during the summer. People wandering the boardwalk would stop to check it out.
“You see something interesting, you go look,” she said.
A visitor from Tennessee echoed his support for a memorial.
“Those who say, ‘Why this site?’ – they don’t want their view of the ocean obstructed,” said Brian Giles, 53.
As to whether a memorial fits in with the scene overlooking the Atlantic, he said: “Where did the Holocaust fit in with life?”