Ohio’s Holocaust Memorial Fight
Gov. John Kasich’s proposed statehouse monument is unprecedented. Some argue it’s also unnecessary.
Barbara Turkeltaub has given variations of the same speech 100 times, but no matter how often she tells the story of her escape from the Holocaust, it never fails to leave her audience in tears. When she spoke two years ago, on May 4, 2011, at the 31st annual Ohio Statehouse Holocaust Remembrance Event, it led to a different conclusion.
At that time, Turkeltaub—who is 80, blonde, and looks a little like Martha Stewart—stood at the Rotunda stage in a black suit, with a white scarf knotted neatly at her neck. She looked out at the audience of Ohio dignitaries and constituents and began to tell her story: Born in Vilna in 1934 to a seamstress and an accountant, Turkeltaub was a happy child, blissfully ignorant of the war raging around her—until her family was herded to the ghetto in 1940. To save Barbara and her younger sister, Turkeltaub’s father paid off the family’s former milkman to take in the girls. But the man’s wife, fearing for her family’s life, told her husband to turn the girls over to the Gestapo.
Turkeltaub knew she and her sister needed to leave immediately. They escaped that night, walking for hours in the dark. When they stopped to rest, they heard the sound of horse’s hooves, and saw the long, black silhouette of their future savior: a priest at a local convent, who hid them for the next five years. Her father and older siblings were murdered in concentration camps. Looking out at the audience of Ohioans, Turkeltaub issued a plea: “We cannot pretend we do not see, we do not hear, we do not know,” she said. “We need to take a stand, because history can repeat itself. It can happen to any group of people.”
When Turkeltaub finished, Gov. John Kasich stood up to speak. As he arrived at the microphone and looked at the still-tearful audience, the governor seemed to suddenly go off-script: “The National Holocaust Museum [is] not good enough for Ohio,” Kasich said of the museum in Washington, D.C. “We need to have a remembrance in the statehouse. … Let’s put a program together, let’s construct something in this rotunda that can teach people about man’s inhumanity to man, best exemplified by what happened in the Holocaust.”
Sitting in the audience, Kasich’s staffers and Holocaust Remembrance Day organizers shot each other puzzled looks. The announcement was completely unexpected. But the audience began to applaud, and Democratic Rep. Steve Slesnick enthusiastically joined in.
“I immediately started thinking, ‘How are we going to do this?’ ” Slesnick told me. “As one of two Jewish members in the Ohio legislature, I felt it was my responsibility to help champion this through.”
But across the aisle, former Republican Sen. Richard Finan had a completely different reaction to the governor’s remarks. He was seething. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘You can’t do this,’ ” Finan told me last week. “You have to submit an application for the memorial. You can’t just bypass all these regulations.”
Thus, the great Ohio Holocaust Memorial debate began.
Kasich’s decision to put a memorial in the statehouse was unprecedented: There are no Holocaust memorials at any other statehouse in the country. It was also technically illegal. In order for any kind of changes to be made to the Ohio statehouse grounds, it has to first pass through the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, which controls the house grounds. The last monument to be approved was a statue of William McKinley about 100 years ago.
The governor’s promise was also a bit surprising, given that Ohio already does a good job memorializing the Holocaust. At the governor’s mansion, where Kasich resides, there is a statue titled To Life, made by local survivor Alfred Tibor, memorializing the children of the Holocaust. And on the east side of the statehouse sits Veterans Plaza, embossed with veterans’ memories of wars, including a long letter from a soldier talking about the 14,000 Jews he encountered when American troops entered the concentration camps.
Even within the Jewish community, there was some division about monument. “Some people asked, ‘Why draw attention to ourselves like this?’ ” said Sleskin. “In a time where Ohio was cutting services, they didn’t want any kind of hatred directed at Jews and Holocaust survivors.” But others feel strongly that a monument should stand at the statehouse, the center of Ohio’s body politic. “This is not just a Jewish story,” said Turkeltaub. “It’s a universal story of what can happen when people don’t stand up for each other. It’s an important educational lesson for the thousands of visitors who come to the statehouse every year.”
It was the second thought that prevailed. A few days after the remembrance event, Kasich appointed Steve George, his director of special projects, to lead an exploratory committee. George met with board members of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and representatives from Ohio’s Jewish and arts communities to set the plan in action. It was decided that the monument would be privately funded to avoid controversy at a time when the state government was tightening its belt.
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