On May 25, 2014, over 200 people gathered at Durham Hebrew Cemetery for a funeral.
Not one of them knew the identity of who was being interred.
The tiny casket held ashes of an unidentified person or people that had been cremated in Germany’s Dachau concentration camp during World War II.
The ashes had been given to a young American, Walter Corsbie, who was at Dachau on a military errand soon after the camp prisoners were liberated in May 1945. A survivor gave Corsbie the ashes with the hope that they would somehow help him, and as a result, the world, never forget what had happened at Dachau.
Two years ago, Durham artist Mirinda Kossoff was asked by her cousin, Joseph, Walter’s son, to make a dignified burial for the ashes. With the help of Sharon Halperin, director of the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education of NC, Rabbi Jen Feldman of Chapel Hill’s Kehillah Synagogue, and Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Durham’s Beth El Synagogue, Corsbie’s wish was fulfilled.
“The burial of the ashes provided closure for a lot of survivors we work with on a daily basis,” Halperin said. “When they saw the dirt being piled on top of the miniature casket housing the ashes, they felt like they were burying those who were lost to them.”
At 3 p.m. Sunday, April 26, a memorial sculpture created by Carrboro’ Mike Roig, will be installed over the grave. The public is invited to the ceremony.
A committee composed of Halperin, Kossoff, Feldman, Greyber, and Beth El members formed after the burial to choose an artist to create the sculpture.
“I thought of Mike Roig since I know his work and have always admired it, particularly because it is kinetic,” Kossoff said.
Greyber said that all three artists’ sculptural proposals had a gravity and starkness to them befitting these victims. “But Mike’s sculpture was going to give us a place not only for remembrance but also for reflection,” Greyber said. “By doing so, it moves us to the past as well as towards the future.
“There is nothing which can explain the darkness of the Holocaust,” the rabbi continued. “Our task as a Jewish community is to try and draw the light out of that darkness. Our hope is that by burying the victims from Dachau in our cemetery, we are insisting on the human dignity that was denied them as well as creating a space within our community where the memory of what happened to them can be a source of bringing more of God’s light into the world.”
Part of the sculpture, which is under wraps until the ceremony, is made of stainless steel. Roig’s steel work often has a matte finish. This piece has been polished.
“I had suggested doing this so viewers could see their reflection,” he explained. “They are seeing themselves in that history. There is always this question anyone has looking at the Holocaust: How would you respond whether you were a victim or on the side that was expected to support it?
“We all have that kind of uneasy relationship,” he said. “If we are ever going to stop this from happening in the future, we need to have a sense of what it means to stand in opposition.”
Roig has engraved “Remember” in Hebrew and in English on the monument’s base. Also engraved there is a quote from Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by.”
Last fall, when Roig visited the cemetery, he noticed stones on top of the monuments there. It is a Jewish tradition that visitors to graves leave a stone.
Sitting near the base of the Holocaust monument will be a vessel Roig created, filled with stones onto which Roig has had “Remember” engraved. “I would like people to leave a stone but also take one and give it to someone else to bring back. I don’t know if it will be a success, but the stones would be connecting people.”
The base of the sculpture has a bridge-like quality so it arches over the top of the ashes.
“I felt like this was a kind of protection without disturbing the ashes,” Roig said. “It also symbolizes the bridge of the present to the past.”
‘Such an honor’
One of the funders of the sculpture is Gladys Siegel, a member of Beth El Synagogue.
“I felt it was such an honor for us to have the ashes from Dachau,” Siegel said. “So when Sharon said that we were going to have a monument installed, I thought it was wonderful and wanted to contribute to it. It is very important for us to all remember that the Holocaust happened, and that it can happen again. Anti-Semitism is on the rise.”
A marker, created by Vicki Smith, will hang by the monument. It shows Roig’s artistic statement, the story of the ashes’ journey, and a map of Germany with Dachau marked on it. “I tried to get as much information as possible on it so it is an educational tool,” said Halperin, who teaches about the Holocaust and its parallels to genocides occurring today.
Kossoff will be seeing Roig’s sculpture for the first time along with everyone else at Sunday’s unveiling. “I am moved and thrilled that there will be a permanent and beautiful piece of art to mark where the ashes are laid to rest,” she said.
The cemetery, which is part of the Maplewood Cemetery and across the street from 840 Kent St., is open to the public every day of the year.
“I will be bringing my students here to study the monument,” Halperin said. “We will think about what happened, why it is here, and how we can act to make the world a better place with more tolerance.”
Deborah Meyer writes about the visual arts each month. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.