International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp that was the scene of the murder of more than 1.1 million Jews between 1942 and 1945.
Sebastian Birke stood alone as he looked up at the six glass towers looming over Union Street Park Monday afternoon, reflecting on the atrocities that were committed at the camp and others like it. Each tower, he noted, was covered in faintly written serial numbers that had been inked into the flesh of Jews when they arrived at the camps more than 75 years ago.
The six towers represent the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
“It’s worth standing still for a moment," Birke said, a single tear sliding down his cheek. He was one of a handful of people who were paying their respects on a quiet, chilly afternoon at the downtown memorial.
Birke, 43, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 2001 and has lived in Boston for five years. As he walked through the New England Holocaust Memorial, Birke remembered those who were lost in the genocide.
“As a German, I would say there is a lot of shame and a lot of horror. My grandfather was 13 when the war ended," Birke said. “He lived through it.”
Birke’s grandfather lived in an apartment in Berlin with his parents and brothers when the Nazis started to round up German Jews.
“There were two seamstresses that lived on the street-level floor of the apartment building,” Birke said. “He remembers neighbors talking one morning. He died when he was 86, and he could remember the sentence they said until he died," Birke said.
“They said, ‘Last night they came and got them'."
Six metal grates-- each with the name of a Nazi death camp written next to them-- poured mist from the ground under the glass towers as Birke spoke; an eerie reminder of the ashes that once billowed from the chimneys of these camps’ crematoriums.
Birke was standing next to the grate for the Auschwitz camp, the deadliest of the camps run by the Nazis.
“It is very important to remember these individuals and what was done to them, and that humans are capable of doing this,” Birke said. “There is a tremendous amount of shame [among Germans], and it’s not a good feeling in any way shape or form, but I’m also very proud that people are going to great lengths and remembering.”
Just down the stone walkway from where the glass towers stood, another Holocaust memorial was on display for the day.
A ghost box, as artist Jack Millard dubbed the small white stand he built, displayed images of people representing Jews who suffered in the Holocaust. A mirror hung above them so the viewer could see their own face among the sea of victims.
“They look mutely out at us, wanting us to do something,” Millard said.
Millard also fashioned dozens of little “Boats of Hope” out of tree pods and fake butterflies. He handed them out to those who passed, hoping to help them heal from whatever struggles they have gone through.
“Given the growing climate of anti-Semitism and violence against members of the Jewish community, I feel compelled to perform an installation focused on healing and remembrance of people who triumphed over terrible suffering," Millard said.
Birke said his grandfather would have been moved by Millard’s display, the glass memorial, and the day of remembrance.
“He would be very happy to see this," Birke said. "He would be very happy to see that people take this seriously; that this is being remembered.”