At the Oregon Holocaust Memorial

by Steve Dodge

It’s a quiet place where they planted the Oregon Holocaust Memorial. There, at the edge of Portland’s Washington Park near the Rose Test Garden and Japanese Gardens, the trees whisper in the breeze while birds call out amid the occasional whoosh of a passing car.

At the Town Square I take in the bronzed artifacts, real period objects symbolizing the items dropped by people as they were hustled off to concentration camps, many never to return. There is a bent menorah, someone’s eyeglasses, and a broken suitcase. Most poignant, though, are the children’s items – a baby’s boot, a discarded doll, a well-loved teddy bear.

As I walk from the square towards the memorial past narrow granite slabs, which symbolize the train tracks that took millions to their doom, two little girls and their mother visit. Mom sits on a shady bench as the girls wheel and play on their tricycles in an innocent game of chase, one calling out “I’m going to get you!” After a while, the mother gathers up her kids and all walk quietly through the memorial, pausing at each black slab a few moments before leaving.

I have already read the panels, contemplated the quotes from survivors in brass, and paused reflecting on the “killing camps” where Jews, homosexuals, the handicapped, political and religious dissidents, basically those considered enemies or undesirables, were systematically put to death. Here, at a bend in the wall, buried below in a small handmade wooden box, is enshrined soil, with bits of human bone and ash from each of the camps, gathered personally in Poland and Germany by Oregon survivors.

After the girls and their mother leave I am back on the Town Square bench alone with my thoughts. I note a towering Sequoia tree, one of the longest living things known, just to the right of the memorial’s Wall of Names, and I think “how appropriate.”

It occurs to me that I am at once an outsider and a member of the family. For no one except the survivors and their families can ever fully understand the pain, the loss, and the suffering wrought by the Nazi genocide. Yet the voices, the photos, the sheer overwhelming outrage of what took place touches you, challenges you to try to understand and, perhaps more importantly to stare unblinking into the face of the beast and shout with the rest of the civilized world “Never Again!”

As I look at the abandoned suitcase from my bench in the Town Square, a spider spinning a web on the edge of the sculpture catches my attention. At home I never harm spiders, often capturing them and releasing them outside. But I have a strong desire to kill this one, because here it reminds me of what the Nazis did. Then I think I should just leave it alone, and it flashes in my mind “just like the others who stood by and did nothing.” I stand up, deciding finally to remove the spider with a stick, but when I get there, I realize it is just an old cobweb blowing in the wind. I sweep that away with the stick and sit back down pondering these strange emotions.

As I rise to leave, the wind picks up in the trees causing shadows to play with sunlight across the memorial.

To learn more about the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center and the Oregon Holocaust Memorial, visit the OHRC website.

Cover Story: Oregon Holocaust Resource Center

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