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Monday, January 21, 2019

The Children’s Sculpture. (Credit: Bracha Schwartz)

Naava Parker and Helen Zelig. (Credit: Bracha Schwartz)

The Lisa and Joseph Reibel Memorial Garden. (Credit: Bracha Schwartz)

In a corner of the front lawn at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, two faceless children made of bluestone huddle together, looking at a book with two words: Zachor. Remember. It is a plea from survivors of the Holocaust to their children and grandchildren growing up far from that evil in time and distance. Now those words are literally etched in stone. The Children’s Sculpture is the centerpiece of the new Lisa and Joseph Reibel Memorial Garden. A dedication program will be held on Sunday, June 17, at 10 a.m.

Lisa Reibel, a survivor from Novogroduk, Belarus, often talked to her daughter Helen Zelig about the need for future generations to remember. She visited Helen and her family in Englewood often, and wondered why Ahavath Torah didn’t have a memorial to the victims who perished in the Holocaust. Zelig took her mother’s exhortations to heart, and made it her goal to bring a Holocaust memorial to the shul. Sadly, Lisa Reibel passed away in August of 2015 before the memorial was created, but her vision has been realized.

Three years in the making, the sculpture invites quiet contemplation. As explained in a plaque at the site, six triangular benches, when viewed together, form a Jewish Star. The benches, engraved with inspirational quotes, provide seating for learning on the lawn, reading, reflecting or simply thinking. And remembering. In the center are the children who were deliberately created faceless, as no one face could do justice for the 1.5 million children whose lives were cut short.

Behind them, the center stone is cracked through the heart to represent the atrocities committed against the Jewish people. In the middle of the cracked heart, a living tree grows to show that life has continued and the Jewish people are still here and flourishing. Some of the branches have been cut to different lengths, just like so many branches of Jewish families, from babies to the elderly, were cut off from the living. “The children will ask, the parents will explain and the legacy of this lost generation will remain in our hearts forever,” the plaque reads.

Behind the sculpture, flowers will grow, adding beauty to the space. A walkway will be constructed from the shul driveway to the garden to provide opportunities for members to participate in the memorial. The walkway itself can be named, and the stones on the path can be engraved and dedicated to a family’s lost loved ones.

It was a series of fortunate events that led to the memorial. Zelig turned to a friend for help in creating a design that would capture the essence of her mother’s wishes. “I asked my dear friend Naava Parker, whose artistic abilities are well known,” Zelig said. “She is passionate, sensitive and knew my parents personally.” Zelig explained her idea for a Holocaust memorial to Parker and she was immediately on board.

“I went home and thought about it,” recalled Parker, “and an idea popped into my head in five minutes. It came to me so quickly I felt it was a gift from God.”

At the time, the Zeligs were undergoing construction at their home, and needed stone for the hearth of their fireplace. Through research on the internet, Zelig found Rob Flynn, owner of Flynn Stone, who has been involved in many world-class installations. Zelig told him about the memorial she was planning and gave him a DVD about a trip she and her mom had taken back to her hometown so he would understand the project. He did more than understand. “He called the next day and said he was so taken with my mother’s story that he was donating all the stone,” Zelig said. There was one caveat. Flynn was collaborating with Japanese artist Minako Yoshino and asked that she be a part of this memorial. Working together, Zelig, Parker and Yoshino refined the design. Yoshino shaped the slabs of stone into an enduring sculptural statement.

The project led Yoshino into a world she had not known before. “I learned about the Holocaust, of course, it was in the history textbooks in Japan,” she wrote in an e-mail. “However, I did not know anyone personally who had this experience. So when I saw Helen’s mother’s video, I was genuinely shocked. After my reading hundreds of pages about the Holocaust, I decided to go to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. Walking around the museum, I could not stop crying. At the end of the museum, there was a card asking, ‘What will you do?’ I answered: ‘I am going to make a memorial.’”

Zelig’s parents survived the Shoah under different circumstances. Lisa Reibel was in the ghetto at Novogroduk. An uncle organized a group to painstakingly dig a tunnel by working each night using only forks and spoons. When completed, it was the size of a football field and stretched from the ghetto to a farmer’s field of wheat bordering a forest. When the residents heard rumors that the ghetto was going to be liquidated, the remaining few hundred there fled through the tunnel. Many in the group, including Reibel, her father and sister—but not her uncle—made it to the forest, where the Bielski partisans found them and took them in. They were among the 1200 Jews the Bielskis saved.

Joseph Reibel, who passed away in July of 2001, had lived in the Ukraine, in a village where the Jews were close with their non-Jewish neighbors. When the Nazis closed in, Yonina Ryback hid them in her basement for a year, risking the safety of her own family. When her son Tadau heard in school that the Nazis were going to come after people who hid Jews, the Reibels could no longer stay there. Ryback arranged for Reibel’s two sisters to go to a friend in the next town. She took Reibel and his brother to a cemetery, where they hid in a grave. She told them she would cook for them and every 3 days her friend would bring them the food. At the end of the war, they were liberated by the Russians. When Helen was 10, her father brought Ryback to America and she lived with them for a year. Ultimately, she returned to her country. Ryback has been recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile.

Parker and Zelig got much of their motivation for the memorial from the poem, “We Were Children, Just Like You,” by Yaffa Eliach. “We had to make this memorial a reality for the children who did not complete their lives and for those who lost their childhood,” Parker said.

“We were children just like you, the children of wealth and the children of poverty.

We laughed, we played, we went to school and summer camp, we sang and danced and dreamed;

but we never grew up.

Our world was suddenly engulfed in flames of hatred so vicious that it demanded our deaths—only because we were Jews.

We are all the children of yesterday.

But one and a half million of us live only in the images of memory—forever children—a million and a half promises never to be fulfilled.

Remember us!”

By Bracha Schwartz