When the New England Holocaust Memorial was installed in downtown Boston two decades ago, its founders anticipated a day when it might be vandalized.
The memorial features 132 panes of glass in six free-standing towers, etched with numbers that represent those tattooed on the arms of Jews killed in Nazi death camps.
But the panels are fragile. So the builders manufactured spare panes to be kept in storage until needed. Two weeks ago, their fears were realized when a 21-year-old Roxbury man threw a rock, shattering one of the etched panes.
“Those [spare] panes of glass for 22 years haven’t had to be used,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at a rededication ceremony Tuesday. “And it’s sad that they have to be used today.”
Members of Boston’s Jewish community, elected officials, and Holocaust survivors came together for the rededication. Community members say the weeks since the vandalism have featured a demonstration of unity and a time for remembrance.
“It’s important to have this public display just so people understand what this is all about,” Walsh said.
The mayor said the vandalism had raised concerns of anti-Semitism in Boston. The suspect, James Isaac, is a high school senior who suffers from mental illness, his attorney has said. Isaac was charged with malicious destruction of property and causing more than $5,000 in damage at a place of worship.
Walsh said he’s heard from members of the Jewish community that the damage, though traumatizing, was an opportunity to “understand why the memorial’s here in the first place.”
The importance of the memorial is clear, Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said during the ceremony. It’s a reminder of a moment in history when society forgot humanity’s commonality.
“During Kristallnacht, when glass was broken, we were alone,” Shrage said. “We are not alone. We are all together because we know that we cannot survive alone.”
While addressing the crowd, Shrage pulled from his pocket a piece of shattered glass he picked up two weeks ago when he visited the damaged memorial.
“When Jews put a piece of glass, a piece of rock on a memorial, they do it to remember that we will be back to rebuild,” he said. “We were destroyed and rebuilt. This memorial was vandalized and it has been rebuilt.”
The rededication fell on a particularly poignant day in the Jewish calendar, said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Tuesday is the 17th day of Tammuz, a day of fasting to commemorate the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem.
“On this day that we begin a period of mourning for shattering in the Jewish history, it is also a day to come together and celebrate rededication and renewal and rebirth and unity and an end to brokenness for us at this site here in Boston.”
Israel Arbeiter, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, said repairing the memorial brings a renewal to the Jewish community and Holocaust survivors of Boston.
“Today I feel that part of our life, part of our body have been restored,” he said after the ceremony. “The broken part of our life was restored. Our families cannot be restored, cannot be brought back.”
Arbeiter spoke at the dedication for nearly 10 minutes, though he admitted he was allotted only three. He spoke of the day he was separated from his parents and 7-year-old brother. He was sent to a concentration camp; they were sent to the death camp Treblinka, the name of which is now etched in glass on the Boston memorial.
“The horrible suffering that we, the survivors, endured in concentration camps cannot be forgotten,” Arbeiter said. “When we repeatedly say ‘remember,’ we turn first of all to the world around us.”