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Monument to the Six Million

April 23, 2009 By:
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A Holocaust monument is planned for this section of the Atlantic City boardwalk. Photo courtesy of Atlantic Color Limited
A memorial to the Holocaust might be one of the last things a visitor would expect to encounter on the Atlantic City boardwalk, a destination that's promoted as an escape from everyday life.

But a Margate rabbi has long dreamed of erecting such a structure right on the bustling boards, where millions stroll each year. And in the past few months, that dream has taken a few steps toward becoming a reality.

Last month, following City Council approval, Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo T. Langford signed a resolution calling for the monument's creation. Then, the city officially designated a 60x60-foot section where Kentucky Avenue intersects the boardwalk for the construction of the monument.

"The ultimate purpose of this Holocaust memorial is to reach out to the multitudes -- 98 percent of whom are not Jewish -- and give a legacy message of 'Never Again' and common humanity," said Rabbi Gordon Geller, religious leader of Temple Emeth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Margate, N.J.

Geller also heads the Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial Corporation, a nonprofit entity that's planning to sponsor an open design competition for the monument; a yet-to-be-selected jury will begin receiving entries come October.

The entire competition process is expected to take about a year; Geller claimed a number of high-profile architectural firms have already expressed interest in the project, which is not expected to be unveiled until 2011 at the earliest.

To help call attention to the project, the committee organized an interfaith Yom Hashoah program on Tuesday. Organizers, including a number of non-Jews, decided in advance to move the event indoors due to the threat of rain; approximately 125 people turned out for it.

While a number of smaller memorials exist throughout the Garden State, Geller said that the boardwalk monument is expected to be the largest of them.

The project, in its size and scope, is modeled after the New England Holocaust Memorial, which stands in downtown Boston and was officially dedicated in 1995.

"Where else in the planet do you have that kind of foot traffic?" posed the rabbi, explaining why he wants the memorial on the boardwalk.

On the Flip Side
But not everybody is thrilled with the choice of location.

"I just don't think it's appropriate. I don't think the boardwalk is the place," remarked Don Berkman, 68, a child survivor of the Holocaust who owns a store in Brigantine, N.J.

He said that images of people going from casino to casino or coming off the beach in their bathing suits don't mesh with a somber monument to such mass destruction.

"Let the Six Million lie in peace," said Berkman, who was born in a village outside of Vilna. He also said that the Jewish community should invest limited resources in education, not monuments.

In response to the criticism of Berkman and others, Geller pointed out that a Korean War Memorial already stands on the boardwalk.

The project is expected to cost between $3 million and $6 million, according to Geller.

Although organizers haven't announced what they've raised so far, Geller said that despite the recession, he expects to be able to raise the necessary funds.

"The fundraising will be a huge challenge," stated Robert Seltzer, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.

He noted that current economic circumstances have severely strained federation's own fundraising efforts. This year's annual campaign fell under $1 million, something that hasn't happened in recent years.

Seltzer, who attended the program, said that while he lauds the effort behind the memorial, the federation has not taken a position and doesn't expect to fund the project directly.

Along the way, Geller has enlisted the help of many from outside the Jewish community, including Christian and Muslim clergy and community leaders.

Kaleem Shabazz, a black Muslim who has known the rabbi for 20 years through interfaith activities, serves on the project's executive board and helped shepherd the proposal through the city approval process.

"This is something that speaks to all of humanity," said Shabazz, who directs the Atlantic City Arts Center and is director of community relations for the Masjid Muhammad mosque.

"We need to work together, in unison," he said, "to eliminate the kinds of attitudes and beliefs that make the Holocaust possible."


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