One family's struggle part of Holocaust sculpture garden

Though it’s been more than 60 years since the stories depicted in sculpture in the Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden took place, Abe Besser, 84, remembers them like they happened yesterday.

The bronze relief of concentration camp bunks set against sandy Jerusalem stone trigger a sense memory of the straw mattress he slept on for four years at a concentration camp in the Five Lakes region of Germany. “It was a bag filled with straw, and it wasn’t changed once,” he said. “The bedbugs ate you up alive.”

When he was separated from his family in 1942, Besser was an able-bodied teenager with a trade, which earned him a prized spot among a group he calls “chosen Jews.” By the time he was 18, his metalworking skills made him foreman of a crew who manufactured munitions for Germany during the war.

His mother wasn’t so lucky.

Passing through the entryway into the new memorial garden that Besser donated to the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, which will be dedicated Sunday, the life-size sculpture of his mother gathering two children in her arms is the first to greet visitors.

While a teenage Abe was a laboring prisoner in Germany, the rest of his family was fighting for their lives inside the gates of Auschwitz.

“This is my mother and her twin grandchildren,” Besser said, pointing to the statue. “When she got to Auschwitz with my sisters and an aunt, they separated the ones who could work from the children and elder women who were classified null and void. My mother knew what was going on, so she told my sister and my aunt to stay where they were.”

Besser’s mother took her grandchildren, a niece and a nephew to the gas chambers to save the lives of her own children and sister.

The rest of the memorial is separated into partitions that architect Stanley Daniels said were conceived to funnel visitors through a series of outdoor rooms. The entry is devoted to Besser’s family. The first room depicts Jewish life in Europe before the war. Then a ramp descends into the Holocaust story and back up again with sculptures of immigrants coming off a ship ramp toward a new life. The memorial ends in a chapellike sanctuary with torches surrounded by mirrored glass where visitors can leave a stone.

Baseball fields and the lively hum of activity at the MJCCA surround the memorial. “The concept of putting this here in this location makes a very loud statement that [Nazis] may have tried to annihilate the Jewish community, but here we are today in 2010 and the Jewish community is thriving,” said Michael Wise, CEO and executive director of the MJCCA.

A Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, ceremony will take place every year at the memorial garden. The first one was held April 11.

It was a solemn ceremony, but the baseball games screeched on.

“Someone told me the game should have been stopped,” Wise said. “But it was a testament to what this is all about. From now on our goal is to integrate Holocaust education into everything we do.”

Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden dedication. 11 a.m. April 25. Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. www.atlantajcc.org. Michael Berenbaum, an author and filmmaker specializing in the Holocaust, will speak at the dedication.