A rendering of the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza.

The Six Million Jewish Martyrs statue has sat at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway since 1964, serving as Philadelphia’s memorial to Holocaust. At the time, it was the first such public monument in the country.

But the structure’s getting a massive facelift, and — if all goes smoothly through the construction process — it’ll be transformed into the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza by next year. Construction is expected to begin this October or November on the $7 million project, turning what’s currently a single statue into a multi-faceted memorial plaza that aims to contrast motifs of the Holocaust with American constitutional protections and values.

The overall goal? To remind visitors in Philadelphia, the birthplace of America, that if the United States remains faithful to its Constitution, an atrocity like the Holocaust won’t happen here.

“We had a real opportunity to take that property around the memorial and turn it into something that could amplify the messages of tolerance and freedom and constitutional freedoms,” said Jake Reiter, a board member at the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation whose ancestors escaped the Holocaust. “And obviously we don’t want to revisit the atrocities, but we also want to present a vision of hope and a recognition that we do live in a country of constitutional freedoms, and that we should celebrate that.”

The current Holocaust Memorial sits at 16th and the Parkway. Credit: Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

The nonprofit PHRF is still working to raise all the capital needed to finance the project. Of the $7 million needed to fund the Plaza, part came from an endowment and a separate portion of the funding came from a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant. Reiter, who is also the president of private equity firm Verde Capital, said the foundation has raised what it needs to construct the park itself, and is now in the final fundraising stages to “make sure it’s sustainable.”

The land itself is ground-leased from the City of Philadelphia, and Reiter described the triangular plot of land at 16th Street as the last undeveloped spot along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The foundation, which has been working on this project for the better part of a decade and kicked planning into high-gear about a year and a half ago, settled on the key features of the plaza back in May. It’s set to include the “Six Pillars,” a Remembrance Wall, train tracks, a forest grove and the Theresienstadt tree, in addition to the current Six Million Martyrs Statue.

A site map of the future Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza to be located at 16th and the Parkway. Credit: Courtesy of Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation

The “Six Pillars,” which will be constructed as a memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, will be built in pairs to show “motifs” contrasting the Holocaust with the U.S. Constitution. They’ll be:

  • “Human Equality” vs. “The Master Race”
  • “Natural Rights” vs. “Nuremberg Laws”
  • “Freedom of Religion” vs. “Religious Persecution”

In addition, there will be a black granite Remembrance Wall and original tracks from the railroad adjacent to the Death Camp of Treblinka embedded in the pavement. There will also be a planted grove, which honors those in the resistance movement of the Holocaust, and an Eternal Flame.

A rendering of the Six Pillars, a key component of the future Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza. Credit: Courtesy of Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation

Visitors will also notice the Theresienstadt Tree, a sapling preserved from a original sycamore tree planted by children imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp that stood in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Reiter said one of the main goals of the park is education. To that end, the foundation and those behind the project are in the process of working with students to develop an iPhone app to make the park interactive. The goal is that the app will be location-based, so visitors can listen to testimonials in dozens of different languages and learn about each component of the plaza while walking through it.

“It’s a real balance of sort of the emotional loss coupled with the celebration of hope,” he said, “and the ability to live in a country where we have those freedoms.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.