If you’ve ever walked up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from LOVE Park, you’ve likely passed by the triangle of land at 16th and Arch.
You might’ve paused to take a look at its towering bronze sculpture or large black pillars — but if you stop to linger longer, you’ll find a public space where you can spend anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour learning about one of the darkest chapters in human history, its casualties, and its survivors.
Managed by the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation and maintained by Center City District, the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza opened in its current form in 2018. Next year is slated to bring a big addition: a 2,500-square-foot mural.
The intersection has long been the site of one of the oldest Holocaust memorials in the country, Nathan Rapaport’s “Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs.”
The monument, commissioned by locally-based Holocaust survivors and other community leaders, was originally installed in 1964, and it drew organic public gatherings every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, according to foundation director Eszter Kutas. Before the $9 million renovation project, it was surrounded by not much more than a few flower beds, she told Billy Penn.
All the new elements make it into a larger tribute and educational space, an outdoor museum of sorts. The revamp also brought a smartphone app that allows visitors to dive deeper into the stories introduced at the site. The plaza now hosts school groups, tours, and public programming, sometimes in partnership with other groups.
The plaza draws an estimated 10,000 people each year, per Kutas, and the foundation hopes to increase it moving forward. Given a recent and rapid increase in antisemitism across the country over the past several years, Kutas said, its educational mission — and the Holocaust Remembrance Foundation’s work in general — is particularly important at this moment in time.
“The fact that the public knowledge [of the Holocaust] is so low is one of the many reasons why anti-semitism is rising,” she said.
A public park that’s a tribute to history
When redeveloping the plaza, the foundation wanted to strike a balance between historical tributes and maintaining the area as a public space where people can gather, Kutas explained, aiming to “not overwhelm it with too much content.”
“But I do believe that if you walk through it and you do take in the content that is there … there is quite a bit that you can learn about this history,” she said.
Here’s an overview of the site’s elements.
‘Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs’
Commissioned by the Association of Jewish New Americans and erected in 1964, the monument is the piece that’s been at the site for the longest. It claims the title of the oldest ~public~ Holocaust memorial in the United States, though not the oldest overall. (That title seems to belong to the Holocaust Monument at Zion Memorial Park near Cleveland, which was dedicated in 1961.)
The six pillars
The six pillars standing at the site, which have text on both sides, pay tribute to the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
To read the content of the pillars in chronological order, start with the leftmost facing the rest of the plaza, move right, and then turn once you get to the end and move left to right again.
Many of the pillars are arranged in contrasting pairs, Kutas explained, to “juxtapose American constitutional values and democratic values with the destruction and the ideology of the Nazi regime” side-by-side. For example, the first pillar has a quote about human equality from the Declaration of Independence, and the pillar to its right includes an explanation of the Nazis’ idea of a “master race.”
The eternal flame
A flame behind glass at the plaza symbolizes the millions of people who did not survive the Holocaust.
Train tracks from Treblinka
Some original train tracks from close to Treblinka, the second-deadliest death camp during the Holocaust, are embedded in the ground at the plaza.
“[They] were pulled to send a really powerful reminder here at our site of the systematic and really elaborate way that the deportations moved millions of people to their tragic fate,” Kutas explained.
A tree from Theresienstadt
A tree in the plaza was grown from a sapling taken from a tree in Theresienstadt, a ghetto and transit and labor camp in Czechoslovakia.
The story of the original tree, according to Kutas, is that a group of Jewish children planted the tree in the ghetto/concentration camp during Tu B’Shevat, a holiday that celebrates renewal, and cared for it using a limited water supply.
Saplings were taken from the tree and sent abroad after World War II, and they’ve been planted in other cities too, like San Francisco and Jerusalem.
Grove of trees
At the north end of the plaza is a cluster of trees, which are meant to symbolize people who were forced into hiding during the Nazi regime. That includes both anti-fascist groups who were fighting back as well as “people who were forced [into] hiding because they were personally persecuted during the Nazi regime,” Kutas said. “The trees provided shelter to them.”
More than one way to tour
Each element of the plaza has a sign that explains its significance and offers more background.
If you want to learn more, there’s a mobile app called IWalk that deepens the experience by providing in-depth background information about each part of the memorial, as well as video testimony from Holocaust survivors living in the Philadelphia area. It was developed in partnership with the USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit that preserves audio and video testimonies from the survivors of genocide.
The app is part of a larger effort that the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation is making to reach young people, Kutas explained, who have more distance from the Holocaust and fewer opportunities to interact with the people who lived through it.
“The survivor population, unfortunately, is dwindling as we speak,” she said. “So the questions in front of us are, how do we deepen knowledge, understanding that our children are digital learners, and that they won’t have access to the survivor community?”
IWalk has three different offerings for the site: an hour-long tour focusing on the history of the Holocaust, a half-hour tour about antisemitic propaganda, and another half-hour tour on understanding today’s antisemitism.
Plans for the future
Next year is set to bring a new addition to the site: a big mural by the plaza’s north side. The remembrance foundation is teaming up with Mural Arts Philadelphia to install a 2,500-square-foot piece on the side of the Verizon building in fall 2024.
Per the two organizations, it will be “the first large-scale publicly-commissioned mural dedicated to the Holocaust.” It will also add to the Parkway’s existing public art collection, which is rich in sculpture, but not murals.
Right now, the steering committee is in the artist selection process. The subject or concept of the mural hasn’t been determined yet. Figuring that out will involve the artist, the steering committee, and the public collaborating in a “very open and very creative process,” per Kutas.
“I think it will add color, texture, and storytelling, and I think there could not be a better location for it,” she said. “The mural presents an opportunity to really understand [the trends of rising antisemitism] and just to send a strong message of the need for hope and resilience and tolerance in our communities.”