MIAMI — I suspect most visitors don’t know it, but just across the street from the convention center where Art Basel Miami Beach conducts its massive operation, there’s a very different type of artwork on view. A small sign at Convention Center Drive and 19th Street signals the way, pointing you away from the fair, west past a parking lot and to the corner of 19th and Meridian. There, another small sign announces your arrival in the right place: “Holocaust Memorial.”
It was a friend and Miami native who tipped me off to the existence of the memorial, officially called the Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. First conceived by a group of Holocaust survivors in 1984, it was designed and built by Kenneth Treister and unveiled to the public in 1990. Treister is both an architect and a sculptor, and the memorial, which is large and immersive displays his work in both areas. It also shows him to be better at the former (architecture/planning) than the latter (sculpture).
The memorial is laid out incredibly well; Treister has created a carefully orchestrated experience that moves you through the space, as well as a range of emotions, extremely effectively. You enter by walking through lined rows of palm trees, which allow you solitary time to gather your thoughts. At the end of the trees, you encounter a sweeping sight: a monumental, 42-foot-tall bronze sculpture of an outstretched hand, with naked figures climbing up and over each other to try to reach the top. Ringing the sculpture is a rounded wall of Jerusalem stone, and beyond that a still reflecting pool with lily pads and views of the Miami sky.
But before you can reach the central sculpture, you walk through a shaded path around the pond. Alongside you, granite walls tell the now familiar story of the Holocaust in text and pictures. Midway through, you reach a sort of shrine that leads to a narrow passage. The view here is stunning: different textures of stone play off each other, while slits of light cast lines and the descending path ends in a view of a small bronze figure, more struggling bodies behind it. In the background, a recording plays of a children’s choir singing Hebrew songs — something I found partly annoying but also partly moving, as it called up memories from my own childhood.
When you come to the other end of the tunnel, you encounter a large open space, in the center of which sits the monumental sculpture and scattered figures around it. When I emerged into the light, I was first overcome with emotion. My grandparents are/were Holocaust survivors; my mother was born in a displaced person’s camp in Germany after the war. The Holocaust has haunted my life quite personally, from the way my grandmother keeps too many boxes of tinfoil in her pantry to us trying to get her to tell us her memories of the war. It’s probably the reason I was sent to Jewish day school and summer camp, and through both of those places (and in my own travels) I’ve visited a number of Holocaust memorials throughout the world. But it’s been a while since I’ve been to one, and I wasn’t quite prepared for the feelings Treister’s monument would call up.
At the same time, in the intervening years, I’ve immersed myself in art; my accumulated knowledge and judgments affect my experience of any type of artistic work or display. So after the spatial dynamics of the memorial worked powerfully on me, I became dismayed when I focused my attention on the sculpture itself. Treister’s figures are overly dramatic and cartoonish. While their expressive bodies succeed as a departure from Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell,” their crying, open-mouthed faces push the work towards a kind of melodrama — one that I fear has become the hallmark of our collective Holocaust memory through the prevalence of neatly sentimentalized books and movies, and through the gradual disappearance of survivors able to tell firsthand stories.
Leaving the sculpture and the figures behind, you leave by walking along the other side of the reflecting pool, past the names of the real people, Holocaust victims, etched in granite. Once again, Treister has created solitary space and time for the viewer to process her emotions and thoughts before returning to the world. It’s this expert shifting of sight lines, scale, and mood that make the memorial so evocative.
The Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation (1933-1945 Meridian Avenue, Miami Beach) is open daily from 9 am to sunset.