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Ohio’s Holocaust Memorial Fight

Gov. John Kasich’s proposed statehouse monument is unprecedented. Some argue it’s also unnecessary.

Rebecca Meiser
February 19, 2013
The Ohio Statehouse.(David Grant/Flickr)
The Ohio Statehouse.(David Grant/Flickr)

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.

But a few months into the project, the group hit a road block: The Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, headed by a defiant Finan, was not willing to adjust any of its application guidelines just so Kasich’s proposal could breeze through. “There is a specific method we have that is supposed to be followed,” Finan said. “The government should follow the process.” In the statehouse, George grew increasingly frustrated with the red tape enforced by Finan. “[The process] was designed so that it basically precluded anything from ever being approved,” he said.

Something drastic needed to be done, so George and the governor decided to steamroll Finan and go straight to the state’s general assembly for a vote, bypassing all of Capitol Square’s requirements. In March of 2012, as part of the state’s mid-biennium budget review, House Bill 312 was passed, mandating the creation of the Ohio Statehouse Holocaust Memorial.

Finan was furious. “If you polled every member of the general assembly 75 to 80 percent would agree not to put a Holocaust memorial in the statehouse,” he told me. “They just didn’t have the guts to stand up.” He didn’t keep these feelings to himself. Talking to a news station after the bill was signed, Finan proclaimed: “All one has to do now is go to the governor and say, ‘I want a statue of Donald Duck on the statehouse grounds,’ and if he gets convinced of it, boom!”

The Jewish community, not surprisingly, was not thrilled at having Holocaust victims compared to Disney characters. Joyce Garver Keller, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, declared Finan’s comments “insensitive on so many levels.”

Finan, however, still doesn’t see it this way. In a phone conversation 20 minutes before he left for church, Finan stood behind his speech. “It had nothing to do with the Jewish community,” he said, explaining that he is a big supporter of Jewish causes and was even given the Tree of Life Award by Dick Weiland, a prominent Jewish lobbyist in Ohio. He was simply standing up for the statehouse lawn. “I don’t think a Holocaust memorial fits with the historical markers,” he explains. “The statehouse is a Greek Revival building … that has statues of Civil War generals on the grounds.”

Others view the capitol in a much different light. “The statehouse is where we honor great Ohioans and the things that are important to our collective culture,” says George. “Whether that is a painting of Lake Erie in 1913, or a memorial to the chief protagonist of the Civil War, or a monument to the many Holocaust survivors and liberators who call Ohio home, the statehouse is where we try to tell the stories that are important to pass on.”

Despite Finan’s protests, the process is moving ahead, albeit slowly. Late last month, the Holocaust Memorial Artist Selection Committee announced they had chosen three finalists for the memorial: Jaume Plensa, Ann Hamilton, and Daniel Libeskind. Chosen on the basis of their prior work, the finalists will be flown out to the capitol in March in order to get a chance to study the space; they then will have six weeks to submit their plans.

At least one of the artists will not have to think too hard about the theme. Libeskind, the architect voted to design New York City’s World Trade Center site, is a child of Holocaust survivors, who grew up in Poland under an anti-Semitic communist regime. “This is not just something abstract for me,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about my whole life— how to memorialize the extermination of millions of Jews but at the same time give inspiration to the future.”

Back at her home in Canton, Ohio, Turkeltaub can relate. Sitting at her kitchen table, pleading with me to just have a little more cake, she told me she’s spent years trying to get rid of the anger in her heart. “My kids thought that their parents screaming at night [with nightmares] was normal,” she says. These days, Turkeltaub accepts most invitations she gets to speak. “I am one of the only survivors left,” she said. “I feel an urgency to tell my story.” Which is why she’s so excited to have a permanent monument that honors her story—and that of millions—when she is no longer able to talk. “Even if I’m not invited to the unveiling, I’m going to go anyway.”


CORRECTION, February 19: An earlier version of this article reported that the Ohio Arts Council selected the three finalists for the memorial. In fact, the Holocaust Memorial Artist Selection Committee, comprised of members of the Jewish community, representatives from Capitol Square Review Board, members of the arts community, Holocaust survivors, and a World War II veteran, selected the finalists. The error has been corrected.

Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.

Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.

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