‘There is never enough remembering,” Izzy Arbeiter once told me.
On Wednesday morning, Arbeiter stood before the Holocaust Memorial he helped bring to Boston, a way of remembering after he is gone. Its glass towers, etched with millions of numbers representing the dead, form a serene, moving, horrifying monument to unspeakable loss.
What did the pile of green glass sitting at the base of one of the towers a few feet away mean for that remembering? Arbeiter didn’t yet know whether the massive pane on the memorial’s first tower had been shattered in a random outburst, or in a targeted, anti-Semitic attack. Only later in the day would James E. Isaac’s attorney tell a court that Isaac was “struggling considerably,” the 21-year-old high school senior, whose father had been murdered when he was 8, battling mental illness.
Of course it matters what Isaac’s motivations were. But even if a broken young man threw that rock with no awareness of what he was attacking or what makes it sacred, the pain was felt widely — and was painfully familiar. Just ask Izzy Arbeiter, or anyone who survived the Shoah, or their descendants.
“This is part of our lives, part of our families,” he said. “It’s not just towers.”
Steam rose beside the shards, evoking the smoke of the death chambers where his parents and siblings perished.
Arbeiter, 92, has spent a lifetime telling their story, and his, recounting the October night in 1942 when they were herded into a marketplace in the Polish ghetto of Starachowice and sorted into two lines by German soldiers. He and two of his brothers were sent to a labor camp outside town. The rest of his family was loaded onto trains bound for Treblinka, where he believes they were murdered right away.
There would be countless other selections, and each time, the Nazis ordered Arbeiter to the side that was spared, his continued survival less likely with each cruel tilt of a thumb. He never expected to make it, sure that the only way out of Auschwitz was, as he often says, “through the chimney.”
And yet he lived, liberated by French troops on his 20th birthday. His life since has been about making sure that we know about the millions who were not miraculously spared.
Each of the numbers etched on those six stark towers near Faneuil Hall represents a lost life that haunts generations of family and friends. Six towers, six concentration camps, six years of carnage, six million dead.
They haunt the rest of us, too.
How we respond matters so much more than the reason, if there even was one, why this happened.
The tower at which Isaac threw that rock memorializes Belzec, a camp in Southeastern Poland. There, beginning in 1942, German soldiers unloaded 20 packed freight cars at a time and ordered Jews to run through a tube that led directly into the gas chambers. Afterward, other prisoners were forced to bury the dead in mass graves, or to burn them. More than 400,000 Jews perished there.
We allow their lives to recede — to become abstract artifacts of history — at our own peril. As survivors leave us, and anti-Semitism regains more of a foothold than we might have dreamed possible, we need physical reminders more than ever.
Boston’s Holocaust Memorial is an outpost of remembering, but also of civility, a place that unites us against humanity’s worst. That is what makes it such a quietly essential place.
And that is what the community leaders who gathered there Wednesday morning chose to see in the aftermath of the first act of vandalism at the site in the 23 years since it was first dedicated.
The attack on the memorial was an attack on everyone. And everyone mobilized: Bystanders called police right away; Isaac was quickly arrested; city officials and other leaders gathered to express solidarity, vowing to make the memorial whole again. (The shattered panel is easily replaced, spare etched panes of thick glass kept in storage for just this possibility.)
In an era when hatred has grown more flagrant, and the bonds of community more tenuous, there was something hopeful in all of this.
“I prefer to see this as an affirmation rather than a desecration,” said Barbara Grossman, the Tufts theater professor and philanthropist who helped bring the memorial to Boston.
Sadly, it’s affirmation we sorely need right now.