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When I was in Washington, DC, I went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which describes the WW2 Holocaust in detail. It is hard to put into words the feeling of walking through that museum: Emotional. Educational. Unsettling. Sad. Disturbing. In a way though it is also inspirational to see how much effort has been put into honouring those who lost their lives, and to help us remember those horrific events in the hope that history never repeats itself.
In San Francisco there is a much smaller Holocaust Memorial near the Legion of Honor. This memorial was created by sculptor George Segal, and installed in 1984. The memorial sits on the well manicured grounds of the Legion of Honor, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean. There is a stark contrast between the grey and white memorial and the beautiful and colourful grounds it sits on, almost forcing you to stop and spend time in thought reflecting on the evil that killed over 6 million people.
Segal’s memorial is small, perhaps 20′ in size. It shows one prisoner looking out through the barbed wire of a fence, and the bodies of 10 people who have just been removed from the gas chambers and thrown in a heap on the ground. There is no discrimination in the victims: There are 7 men, 2 women, and a child.
In an interview with the New York Times Segal said:
”I must have looked at 1,000 photographs,” Mr. Segal said, ”and I was struck by the obscenity of the disorder, the heaping of the bodies. In most countries, there is a ritual order at funerals. The corpses are carefully composed, and there is a ritual of grieving. Here was a decision by a modern state to perform official murder of an entire race. The indignity of the heaping, the total disregard for death, spoke of the insanity.”
The disorder could not be captured, however, by mirroring it. ”If I were to recreate the chaos,” he said, ”I’d have to use the Nazi brutality and contempt to arrive at a solution. I don’t think it is the function of the artist to repeat that kind of bankrupt frame of mind. It is much more important to make room for the private tendrils of response everywhere.”
Therefore, the work had to be carefully ordered and composed; which could easily neutralize the disorder, or make it too consciously esthetic. ”It means walking a desperate tightrope,” Mr. Segal said. ”The awfulness can’t disintegrate into prettiness.” ‘It Has to Do With Survival’
The geometry and the series of correspondences within the work tie everything together and also create themes, motifs, pockets of interest. There are a number of religious and allegorical references. The heap on the ground forms a cross, or a star. One of the two women, lying on the stomach of a man, with her legs outstretched toward the upper left of the work, is holding a partly eaten apple. She is a large, earthy figure. ”I became as interested in Eve’s sensuality as anything else,” Mr. Segal said. ”It has to do with survival.”
If there is one indispensable figure in the work, one figure who pulls the composition taut and gives the work a larger dimension, it is the standing figure in the foreground. Unlike the corpses, he is dressed. He is wearing ”those famous striped prison pajamas,” Mr. Segal said.
As with Mr. Segal’s previous works, the plaster figures were made by taking molds from people the artist knows and by making plaster casts, which he subsequently worked. ”He is a real survivor,” Mr. Segal said of the man who modeled for the standing figure. ”He’s an Israeli friend of mine who survived the camps. I felt that certain things had to be authentic.”
I think I was moved most by these two victims displayed in one last embrace:
As you walk away from the memorial you see two plaques that end with a statement of hope:
And that is what I felt as I prepared to walk away, taking one last image:
Viewed from behind it feels like the lone man standing is still looking out with hope, despite the horror behind him. It feels like a metaphor and tribute to the indomitable spirit of the people who survived these horrific events.
Some have said that a camera is a passport to the world. My passion for photography brought me to San Francisco on this trip, and my Fuji X100s let me quietly capture these images, giving me something to remember the feeling I had when I stood in front of this memorial.
I hope you like them.