By Michael Jacobs
Poet Pavel Friedmann famously wrote at the Terezin concentration camp that he never saw another butterfly, but his words helped inspire a sculpture that will ensure students at Greenfield Hebrew Academy never forget what happened to him and the millions of others slaughtered in the Holocaust.
The Jewish day school in Sandy Springs dedicated the memorial to Holocaust survivor Alex Gross, father of academy alumnae and grandfather of current students, at a ceremony March 6.
“I’m not only honored, I’m very, very moved,” said Gross, who said his spirit is 21 even if his body is 80. “This statue is definitely a symbol of the millions of children, Jewish children and other children, that have been murdered, gassed and burned.”
The memorial’s base is composed of stones academy students painted in memory of children slain in the Holocaust. Rising from the base is a metal sculpture created by Atlanta artist Corrina Sephora Mensoff, who worked on the piece for more than a year.
Mensoff said the children’s handiwork led her to start the sculpture with hands.
Four hands, based on Gross’ twin fifth-grade granddaughters at the school, Hannah and Eliana Weiss, form columns that meld into a multitude of hands. Those hands turn into flames, representing the fate of more than 1 million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust.
“Sometimes out of darkness comes light, and so out of the flames we see a ring of butterflies,” Mensoff said. “I wanted to bring that ring of lightness and bless this sculpture with that for you.”
She later said her inspiration for the butterflies was Friedmann’s poem, which Hannah Weiss read during the dedication ceremony.
She also gained inspiration from a summer residency in Budapest, Hungary, where she visited the great synagogue on Dohany Street. She didn’t learn until the dedication that Gross had spent time during World War II as a member of the boys’ choir at that synagogue after fleeing his home village. He said the experience was a lifesaver because choir members got soup and milk when they practiced.
Gross said he lost his mother and father and 99 percent of his relatives in the Holocaust. The Nazis cleared out his village while he was home from Budapest. “We had no idea why, but we knew one thing: just because we were Jews.”
His three daughters, Stephanie Weiss, Robin Gross-Lehv and Etta Zimmerman, commissioned the memorial for GHA in honor of his good works and his 80th birthday. Gross said the memorial “proves to me that my daughters and (five) grandchildren are capable of accomplishing how to teach this world not to be bad, not to do bad things, to concentrate on doing the right things.”
Rabbi Ephraim Silverman of Chabad of Cobb said GHA is the perfect place to teach that lesson because “you children are the ones that are going to continue the bright light of the Torah and to bring the greatest honor to those loved ones and to all those unfortunate children which are symbolized by these beautiful, magnificent stones.”
Silverman, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, said the children and the school are themselves the most fitting memorial to victims.
“You are the promise of the Jewish people that came after the destruction,” Principal Leah Summers told the students.
Gross said the school and the students mean everything not only to him and the Jewish people, but the world. “You’re not going to learn the wrong things. You’re not going to learn to hate. You’re not going to learn to dislike people.”
He urged the children to like their friends, families and their neighbors, “but more important than anything else, like yourself. You’ve got to like yourself in order to like other people.”
Summers told the academy children they should draw inspiration from the warning of the flames and the hope of the butterflies in the memorial: “It is your job and your duty when you see this, when you come into school, when you leave school, when you’re walking through the hallways, to say, ‘I will never forget.’ ”