L.A.’s (Mostly) Forgotten Holocaust Wall

The 1966 Wall of the Martyred Six Million in Temple Beth Am ranks as one of the earliest devoted to the Shoah in the United States

Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, California.
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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin (2005), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (1993), The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (1993) – the establishment in the past generation of these and other elaborate, highly visible exercises in Holocaust commemoration may well have succeeded in keeping the memory of the Shoah alive. But this has come at the cost of overshadowing a host of previous, smaller-scale initiatives, obscuring the ambitious reach they themselves mustered at the time of their unveiling.

A prime example is the Chamber of the Holocaust on Jerusalem’s Mt. Zion, founded in 1948 and largely forgotten in the wake of Yad Vashem’s sprawling campus at the edge of the Jerusalem Forest to the west. Another is the Wall of the Martyred Six Million in the sanctuary of Los Angeles’ Temple Beth Am, dedicated on April 24, 1966. The joint brainchild of the Conservative synagogue’s late founding rabbi, Jacob Pressman, and its president at the time, the real-estate mogul and Holocaust survivor Nathan Shapell (1922-2007), the memorial ranks as one of the earliest devoted to the Shoah in the United States. Yet it has attracted little notice in recent years and may also be the first obliged to find a new home; construction on a replacement sanctuary is slated to begin this fall. The arrival of Yom Hashoah marks a particularly appropriate occasion for considering it anew.

The Wall, actually two separate structures bridged by a stained-glass installation, frames the Beth Am bima, looming over the congregation both left and right. On the left, from the congregant’s perspective, the names of the Nazi ghettos and extermination camps, scratched in Hebrew “into the unyielding stone” as if by the “agonized fingers” of the victims (to quote the monument’s March 1966 press kit), are accompanied by the Yizkor prayer for martyrs and the Ani Ma’amin credo (“I believe in the coming of the Messiah”), often said to have been sung in the concentration camps.

Holocaust wall.
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In addition, six memorial candles, reflecting the six million victims of the Shoah, “stretch as if in torment out of the tangled tatters of barbed wire and prayer shawl entwined ...” Finally, a cornerstone at the lower left, bearing in English the words, “We shall not forget,” amounts to an implicit argument for the prominence due Holocaust memory in American Jewish life.

As the spice box, Torah scroll, shofar and other ritual implements depicted on the right make clear, this contrasting side is dedicated to “Sabbaths for rest, holidays for gladness, festivals and seasons for rejoicing” – the passage from the festival blessing inscribed upon it. Here seven candles at slightly varying heights – an abstract take on the traditional menorah – echo the six on the opposite wall. The cement blocks of both sides explicitly recall the Western Wall, as does the formal name of the memorial, which also emphasizes which of these sides takes precedence. The Wall of the Martyred Six Million prioritized commemoration over celebration and updated the Kotel – in 1966 still inaccessible to Jewish visitors – for the post-Holocaust age.

Designed by 20th-century wandering Jew

The Beth Am memorial was designed by the painter, sculptor and mosaic artist Perli Pelzig. Born in Poland in 1917 and raised and educated in Germany, Pelzig was arrested and expelled from Hitler’s Reich in 1938 alongside thousands of Jews of Polish nationality. He successfully infiltrated Palestine in 1939, where he engaged in various artistic activities, including restoring the famous 6th-century mosaic in the Bet Alpha Synagogue for the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1948. In 1956 he moved to the United States, where he created artistic installations for numerous synagogues, including at least four in the Los Angeles area. Between 1969 and 1996 he again lived in Israel, afterward returning to Southern California, where he remained until his death in 2009. Pelzig was the recipient of numerous prizes, including the American Institute of Architects’ Art in Architecture award, which he was given twice.

Dedication ticket.
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At least two American Holocaust monuments preceded the Beth Am Wall: the 1964 Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial sculpted by Nathan Rapoport and the Memorial to the Six Million in Atlanta’s Greenwood Cemetery, from 1965. But the Wall does seem to be a first and rare example of a “memorial of such magnitude [becoming] the focal point of a house of prayer.” As such, it gives physical expression to Rabbi Pressman’s “earnest hope that synagogues throughout the world will in one way or another continually remind mankind of [the] great martyrdom” that is the Shoah.

That is to say, the perpetuation of Holocaust memory was understood to be a central task of congregational life. Temple Beth Am was thus positioning itself as a model worthy of imitation the world over, providing striking testimony to L.A.’s emerging sense of self as an autonomous and authoritative Jewish center.

Nor does the project’s ambition end there. In tandem with the construction of the Wall, a large parchment book was prepared in which the names of Holocaust victims were to be recorded. Today the documentation of the Shoah is so developed, the commemorative recitation of names of the murdered so common, that this occasions no surprise. But at the time it was absolutely pioneering.

In keeping with its international agenda, the dedication of the Wall was accompanied by impressive outreach. The temple explicitly invited “world Jewry to participate in this event” and the project’s board members included such luminaries as former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Israeli President Zalman Shazar, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, California Governor Edmund G. Brown, L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty and Anne Frank’s father Otto. Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion served as honorary chair. Among the letters of support preserved in the Beth Am archives are missives from Truman, Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr. – who expressed a desire to visit the memorial on a possible future visit to Los Angeles – and a scrawled, handwritten note from the “Old Man” himself.

Ben-Gurion letter.
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In his letter, Israel’s first prime minister acknowledged the Wall “as an enterprise that gives honor to your community.” But he perhaps also sounded a prophetic note of caution concerning the potentially disproportionate degree of attention subsequently to be granted to the Holocaust in American Jewish life, when he proceeded immediately thereafter to “hope that you will also be diligent in bequeathing Hebrew education to the Jewish children of Los Angeles, so that they will know not only about the huge disaster that came upon our people about twenty years ago – but also about the great immortal creation that our people created in its land thousands of years ago – the Book of Books.”

As attested in the synagogue archive, in the aftermath of the Wall’s dedication at least some synagogues in North America displayed interest in following Beth Am’s lead. But the memorial never attained the enduring international (or even local) prominence to which its creators and boosters aspired. Within the Beth Am community, efforts have periodically been made to reassert the Wall’s importance. Thus, in 1991, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, Rabbi Joel E. Rembaum, whose father Eli had served as co-chairman of the memorial committee back in 1966, affixed a Jerusalem stone to it alongside a memorial candle and plaque on behalf of the “Second Generation.” The associated parchment book is still prominently displayed at Yizkor services.

Yet as the number of survivors among the synagogue’s membership has declined and Holocaust memorialization has, so to speak, gone major league, interest in, let alone awareness of, the Temple Beth Am Wall has waned. Speaking with L.A. child Holocaust survivors at a recent Pesach gathering held at the synagogue, this writer came away with the distinct impression that they had no idea that a pioneering example of American Holocaust commemoration was to be found just upstairs. And as Beth Am moves forward with plans to remake a sanctuary widely regarded as outmoded (the construction-start date has been set for after the High Holidays), the very monument constructed to ensure the perpetuation of Holocaust memory ironically now faces an uncertain future itself. This Yom Hashoah was likely to be the last on which the Wall of the Martyred Six Million was found in its original setting.

The Temple Beth Am leadership is at present assessing the future of the memorial and possible ways of preserving it. Alongside urgent practical concerns – determining how to remove the large monument from its present location without causing irreparable damage and locating a new, permanent home for it – a deeper ethical question looms: By what right does one remove a memorial, especially one dedicated to the Holocaust, from the specific location for which it was designed? The question is all the more pressing given the monument’s intimate association with Pressman and Shapell, figures central to the history of the synagogue, and indeed to that of the larger Los Angeles Jewish community.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter.
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Coming on too strong?

And yet one cannot help revisiting the very decision to place such a monument in the heart of a sanctuary. The 1966 press kit spoke of a “wall of stone and metal, dramatically suggesting the infernos of horror,” and Pressman wished for synagogues continually to remind the world of the Holocaust. One can legitimately ask if such decor and such aims are appropriate or realistic for a house of prayer. Linking ritual and Holocaust remembrance so starkly, so architecturally, paradoxically risked and risks both coming on too strong and deadening the very impact one aims to achieve: one accordingly encounters congregants offended by the presence of the memorial and others who barely notice it. Effective prayer and commemoration are probably best achieved separately, rather than combined.

Finally, at the most basic, practical level, a sanctuary memorial is generally accessible to synagogue-goers alone, and only when they enter the sanctuary at that, as the survivors’ above-mentioned gathering attests. Assuming a new, permanent home for the Wall can be found (and it would be a great shame, in light of its historical significance, if one cannot), it may well prove to be a boon for a memorial that has for the most part long been forgotten.

The story of the Wall of the Martyred Six Million at Temple Beth Am is a tapestry woven of many diverse strands. It is at once the story of a prominent Jewish artist, himself a victim of Nazi oppression; the story of the rise of Los Angeles as a major, self-confident Jewish community; and the story of the emergence of Holocaust memory as a cornerstone of American Jewish life. It is also a little-known story, a story hitherto not set down in writing, and, Temple Beth Am’s renovation plans make clear, a story whose end has yet to be determined. Finally, it is a story worthy of our consideration as we mark Yom Hashoah 5777.

The author is the Viterbi Visiting Professor of Mediterranean Jewish Studies at UCLA.