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Ohio governor dedicates Holocaust and Liberators Memorial

The Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial, designed by Daniel Libeskind, on the lawn of he Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio, was dedicated June 2, 2014. (Marshall Weiss/ The Dayton Jewish Observer)
The Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial, designed by Daniel Libeskind, on the lawn of he Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio, was dedicated June 2, 2014. (Marshall Weiss/ The Dayton Jewish Observer)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (The Dayton Jewish Observer) — Visibly moved by the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, Ohio Gov. John Kasich called for a monument at the Ohio Statehouse during the annual Governor’s Holocaust Commemoration three years ago.

“Let’s construct something that can teach people about man’s inhumanity to man, best exemplified by what happened in the Holocaust,” Kasich said at the May 4, 2011 ceremony during his first year in office.

On Monday, the governor presided over the dedication of the Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial, designed by noted architect Daniel Libeskind, at a noon ceremony at the ornate Ohio Theatre, across the street from the monument.

“The purpose of this monument is to honor those who perished, but the additional purpose is for people to look, to reflect, to meditate, and to ask themselves, ‘What can I do? What can I possibly do to fight evil when I see it,’ ” the governor told the approximately 1,500 attendees. “We are capable, when life gets uncomfortable, to stand for the goodness, for our creator, for others made in the image of God.”

In a phone interview with The Observer a few days before the dedication, Kasich said the notion of a memorial at the Statehouse came to him during the 2011 observance.

“I did not go into that ceremony with anything in mind,” he said. “But you know, I had a chance to sit there and reflect and I’ve also been deeply moved by the tragedy, the calamity of the Holocaust.”

In 2012, the governor signed legislation authorizing the creation of the memorial, to be overseen by the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, and the Ohio Arts Council.

The governor’s proposal for a memorial was met with opposition from former state Sen. Richard Finan, chair of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, for not following proper procedure. Finan also said in an interview, “I don’t think a Holocaust memorial fits with the historical markers (at the Statehouse).”

Finan ultimately resigned from the advisory board last year after serving as its chair for two decades.

When asked during his interview with The Observer how he responds to Finan’s criticisms, Kasich said, “That’s beyond this. I’m just excited about what’s going to happen on Monday. And you will be too when you’re there.”

With Monday’s dedication, Ohio became the second state in the nation to commemorate the Shoah with a monument; Iowa dedicated its Holocaust memorial at the state Capitol grounds in Des Moines on Oct. 23.

Ohio’s memorial is the first new monument on the Statehouse grounds since the dedication of Ohio’s Veterans Plaza in 1998.

During his interview with The Observer, Kasich said the new memorial is important to him on a personal level.

“It’s extremely meaningful to me because I hope it will be meaningful to others,” he said. “This memorial has nothing to do with me, it has to do with the message that it sends.”

The personal connection came through during the ceremony, at which Kasich’s teenage daughter Reese read an excerpt from “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.” The governor’s wife, Karen, was among 12 honorees to light candles in memory of the 12 million people who perished during the Holocaust, to the strains of a string ensemble from The Cleveland Orchestra.

Among the candle lighters was Barbara Turkeltaub of Canton, the Holocaust survivor whose talk three years ago inspired the governor to call for the monument; Sara Bloomfield, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University; and Libeskind, who also designed the Jewish Museum of Berlin and the master plan for the World Trade Center redevelopment.

“I didn’t go to the library to research the Holocaust,” said Libeskind, who grew up in communist Poland after World War II. “I live in the shadow of the Holocaust because my parents were survivors.”

When he began to conceive of the memorial, Libeskind said he asked himself, “Where is the light, where is the hope?” he told the audience.

“And I thought of something that starts with the triangles that identified first of all the Jews but also others: political prisoners, different religious and ethnic minorities, those who were mentally and emotionally not well. The sick. Homosexuals. Gypsies. [All] wore those triangles to get identified for murder.”

Libeskind decided he would represent light in the monument  with a crack forming a Star of David that leads to the Ohio sky.

“I recall it was my father who passed away at the age of 91 who said, ‘You know, if people in America only knew where they were, they would kiss the ground on which they walk. They take it for granted: the liberty, the freedom, the tolerance,” Libeskind said. “I would like to create that light through that star, through the crack there is a light. The light of Ohio. The light of the sky, the light that comes to us from elsewhere to look at the world in a way that changes us, that commits us to all the values we deeply share, which are not only material values but spiritual values upon which this incredible nation is founded.”

The 1,029-square-foot memorial at once fits in with other Statehouse monuments and disrupts the south lawn’s landscape. Libeskind incorporates a granite plaza, low walls of Ohio limestone and bronze for the monument in keeping with materials used for most Statehouse memorials. Libeskind’s 18-foot-high monument, the ruptured Star of David is engraved with the narrative of cousins who survived Auschwitz. The architect selected the passage himself.

Private donors from across the state funded the $2.15 million memorial. Its main inscription reads, “Inspired by the Ohio soldiers who were part of the American liberation and survivors who made Ohio their home.”

The dedication took place four days before the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy.

“The inspiration for this memorial was rightly drawn from America’s soldiers, officers and chaplains of America’s armed forces in the final days of World War II,” said Yaron Sideman, consul general of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region of the U.S., reading remarks on behalf of Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev. “All of the liberators of every nationality and ethnic origin deserve our gratitude.”

Lipstadt, a Holocaust scholar who won a landmark libel suit in England against notorious Holocaust denier David Irving in 2000, urged Ohioans to continue the work of eradicating prejudice and hatred.

She referred to a middle school in Rialto, Calif., that last month assigned its students to write an essay about whether or not the Holocaust happened.

“But the Holocaust isn’t a position,” she said. “These naive teachers believe Holocaust denial is another side of the argument and the Holocaust is something to be debated. The Holocaust must be taught as historical fact.”

Lipstadt described Ohio’s memorial as a “way station in the process of trying to change ‘Never Again’ from comfortable aphorism that easily flows from our mouths into a reality.”

During the dedication, the governor took on the role of teacher as well as preacher after his veiled reference to Finan’s criticism.

Kasich mentioned a longtime friend who told him, “John, we were worried about you. All the critics, the opposition, the roadblocks.”

The governor shared his reply to his friend: “There’s nothing to worry about. You do things you think are going to lift people. You don’t worry.”

Kasich added that when people ask him why he wanted a Holocaust memorial for Ohio, he reflects on those who have inspired him, including William Wilberforce, Natan Sharansky, Elie Wiesel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“What all of them were about was the dignity of the human being,” he said. “What do I believe? I believe that each and everyone in this auditorium and everyone that walks the earth is made in the image of God. And you see, when we recognize that fact, when we know that we were made special for a purpose, we can treat other human beings with compassion, with respect, with love, because we’re all part of the same team.”

Kasich, a Republican who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001 and chaired the House Budget Committee beginning in 1995, went on to host programs for Fox News before becoming Ohio’s governor.

His 2010 book, “Every Other Monday: Twenty Years of Life, Lunch, Faith and Friendship,” bears a testimonial from Wiesel, whom he had hoped would attend Monday’s dedication.

“He couldn’t make it,” the governor said in his interview with The Observer. “You know, he’s older now, and it’s difficult for him to travel. But I’m sure at some point he will come.”

Following the dedication, Kasich and Libeskind greeted and took photos with attendees in front of the memorial.

When asked during an interview with The Observer how he would respond to those who might suggest the Star of David imagery crosses the line separating church and state, Libeskind said, ”It doesn’t because first of all, it’s a gap of light. And of course we know that the Holocaust was perpetrated by putting that star to mark victims for murder. Also triangles, we have six triangles, they were there to identify gypsies, political prisoners, mentally and emotionally impaired people. So those were not religious symbols. They were indications of mass extermination.”

The memorial is the second Holocaust-related memorial dedicated under the auspices of an Ohio governor.

In 1983, Gov. Richard Celeste and his then-wife, Dagmar, dedicated the statue “To Life” by Ohio artist and Holocaust survivor Alfred Tibor in the garden of the Governor’s Residence in “memory of the children who died in the Holocaust so that all children will remember.”