On a breezy, rather chilly March morning at an unlikely location in rural Mississippi, two groups of children separated by more than 70 years in time and many, many miles in distance, merged onto an unsuspecting world stage for the purpose of the present generation giving voice to those past.
On that day, the brilliance of the murdered children of the Holocaust and the spark of the present generation were united as the Unknown Child Holocaust Memorial/Park was launched.
The highly unlikely union began back in 2009 when Horn Lake Middle School, Mississippi, middle school teachers Susan Powell and Melissa Swartz came to the grim realization that many of their students had “never heard there was a Holocaust,” as one student put it.
Because of their passion for these students to better understand the plight of those children by personal involvement, the challenge was on to collect 1.5 million pennies – one for each child who perished. It seemed simple enough at the outset until reality set in due to the enormous task of collecting the pennies and the sobering realization that each represented a lost child of the Holocaust.
After some three years of collecting, the pennies weighed in at well over 8,000 pounds – more than 4 tons.
That brisk spring morning at the launch of the Memorial project, child survivor Friderica Beck Saharovici stepped up to the podium under the large white tent, her voice aging yet deliberate and commanding, and began to speak of one of mankind’s darkest times.
“I was born in a small town in Romania, not unlike many small towns in Mississippi,” she told the crowd gathered on a ranch once owned by a rock-and-roll Mississippi-born legend.
“After a normal, happy childhood, things changed drastically when Romania became an ally of Germany. I was a first-grader when all the Jewish children were thrown out of the public schools for no other reason than being born Jewish.”
Saharovici said she easily could have become one of the unknown children of the Holocaust whose memories were being honored there in Horn Lake, Mississippi. “Only by the grace of God did I survive. Now, I’m very impressed that in a Southern state, with a small Jewish population and with a history of discrimination, that it would be a place to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.”
Jack Cohen, another child survivor, expressed his view of the Unknown Child Memorial, “The need for our participation in this project is important, not only for our own feelings, but for the hope that future generations will remember the magnitude of these atrocities, perpetuate the memories of the 1.5 million innocent children who perished just because they were Jewish, and inspire us all to help build a better world.”
This unlikely location is the Circle G Ranch, formerly owned by Elvis Aaron Presley, and was the honeymoon getaway after he and Priscilla married in 1967. At first glance it truly is an unlikely scenario – a memorial to the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust and a planned multi-use tourist attraction. But organizers say it makes sense if you accept that Providence drives all things.
Unknown to most is Elvis’s Jewish lineage. His mother was Gladys Love Smith, daughter of Octavia “Doll” Marsell, daughter of Martha Tacket who lived from 1852 to 1887. All mothers in his birth line run uninterrupted from the Jewish grandmother, Mrs. Tacket, and through all of his descending mothers and grandmothers.
Also present at the launch of the Unknown Child was Canadian- born sculptor Rick Wienecke, now an Israeli citizen.
Wienecke was commissioned to create the center piece for the memorial park. Holding a small scale model of the life-sized sculpture, Wienecke explains the child in the piece is leaning against the inside of a crematorium door in a fetal position with his hand (in his mind) reaching through the replica door of the crematoria in Auschwitz and clutching a small plot of ground, the Land of Israel, the only place where he knows he will be safe.
“I’m really happy to be standing on the piece of property that’s going to house the project,” Wienecke exclaimed. “I thank you for sticking with this, because you have to, you really have to. It’s an incredibly important project.”
Wienecke continued by stating he was especially moved by the symbolism of the 1.5 million pennies collected by area school students to represent each of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. “The pennies show the relatively worthless value attached to the lives of Jewish children.”
Mississippi native and architect Doug Thornton has designed the memorial/park, which will be a walk through the years of the Holocaust, ending with the visitor encircled by towering Star of David walls safely and reverently holding each of the collected pennies.
Some call it luck and some a miraculous series of events, but many that day realized the unfolding of a divine mission in a way no human hand could orchestrate.
No matter the term for the beshert (destined) set of circumstances, Saharovici was grateful and exclaimed, “By preserving the memory of the Holocaust and its moral lessons, we tell the world that such atrocities should never happen again to Jews or to any other people in the world. I don’t want my past to become anyone else’s future.”The writer is president of the Unknown Child Foundation, Inc.