A line of railroad tracks on the grounds of Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex in Verona is neither a ruin from another era nor the first stage in a soon-to-be-completed rail line.
The ghostly length of track, which leads to a stone wall hung with barbed wire and a Jewish star with the injunction “Remember,” is part of a Holocaust memorial, newly installed by the Conservative synagogue as tribute to victims of the Shoa — and more.
“The idea was not just to recognize six million Jews but five million others who were killed in the Holocaust, along with a member of our synagogue we lost on 9/11,” said Douglas Brandt, the president of the synagogue’s men’s club, during a May interview in the office of Rabbi Aaron Kriegel. “So we came up with the idea of 11 railroad ties. A local friend designed the tracks to look like the ones that took people away to concentration camps. It is a teachable moment.”
The rabbi agreed.
“It was built in a manner that if people don’t know about the Holocaust, they will ask, ‘What are the tracks for?’” Kriegel said. “We had a neighbor up the street whose three-year-old child loves the monument and loves to walk on the tracks. That’s good news. Other kids walk on the tracks up to the monument and see the barbed wire and if someone is here, they explain it to them. It has been eye-opening.”
Mark Rossi, a Verona resident, dropped by the synagogue with his three-year-old son, Mason, and one-year-old daughter, Morgan. Within a few moments the two children began trying to balance on the tracks.
“I think the tracks are a fitting tribute to all races and religions who suffered during that time period,” said Rossi, a Catholic, whose great-uncle perished in prison camp during World War II.
“It makes me a little upset when people say the Holocaust was for the Jewish people. The Holocaust was for everybody,” said Rossi. “It was mass murder and it shouldn’t be swept under the rug.”
But a month after the memorial’s dedication, not everyone in the neighborhood feels the tracks are a fitting addition.
“It is really depressing to see that every single day,” said Jane Janoff, who lives with her husband, Michael, in a house directly across the street from the synagogue. “Other people have a choice about whether or not to visit a Holocaust museum. We don’t have that choice.
“To us it’s a symbol of death.”
Michael’s father, Milton Janoff, lives in Caldwell but grew up in the house where Jane and Michael now live. Milton Janoff celebrated both his bar mitzva and wedding at Beth Ahm. His reaction to the symbolic tracks was strong and emotional.
“It’s a hideous-looking thing, almost like a freight yard, and there is no sign saying what this is all about. Why should I have to look at that?” he said. “The tracks ruin the picture of the synagogue, and they don’t even give a story.”
The Janoffs’ complaints about the memorial have been reported in the Verona-Cedar Grove Times and The Star-Ledger, but synagogue officials and outside supporters say the memorial is appropriate.
“There is not one image that is death-related,” insisted Brandt.
Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, had not visited the memorial, but examined a photograph at a reporter’s request.
“This is certainly not a graphic image that could be offensive,” she said. And like at least one commenter on The Star-Ledger website, she compared the imagery to crucifixion statues that adorn some churches.
“A man bleeding on a cross is pretty graphic and nobody seems to mind,” said Wind. “It represents a very brutal form of torture and execution for Christians, and resurrection as well.”
“As Catholics, our greatest icon is a dead guy hanging on a cross. It is a symbol of death,” he said. “Yes, a crucifix is very graphic, but for me it is a symbol of hope. The kids outside are going to see the tracks as a symbol of ‘This happened, it was an atrocity, and we don’t ever want to see that again.’”
Born in Prague and raised in Vienna, Kurt Landsberger of Verona is a member of Beth Ahm who managed to escape Europe in 1939.
“I’m not sure I would like it if I lived across the street, but we certainly should not take it away just because people complain,” he said.
Landsberger said he was “on the original committee” to plan the memorial, “but I did not know they were going to put the rails there.”
To overcome objections from some who live nearby, he suggested that Kriegel “invite the neighbors to come over and learn a little about the Holocaust. He could have speakers explain why the memorial was done, even if it may not look to their liking.”