Memorial to those who perished . . . Holocaust and Genocide Memorial grove, Sonoma State University campus

Photos & text: Lydia Aisenberg

Designed to honor survivors and victims of the Holocaust and genocides committed all over the world, a memorial in the luscious grounds of Sonoma State University is powerful and deeply shocking. In one small area, the visitor is faced with having to address some of the most vicious and brutal acts of evil that human beings were, and still are, capable of unleashing upon another.

Centerpiece of the Holocaust and Genocide Memorial grove, an all-embracing corner for those seeking an appropriate setting for contemplation, reflection and remembrance, is an extremely creative sculpture. It consists of two 40-foot long railroad tracks, embedded in the grassy bank of a large tranquil lake, and a very special sapling, now a 2-meter high young tree, planted seven years ago.

The railway tracks, over which a pedestrian path crosses, head toward the lake.  At the beginning, there is a meter or so distance between the rails, but they end up six inches apart at the base of a 10-foot tall glass tower comprised of 5,000 pieces of hand-cut glass encasing an eternal light. On the base of the impressive glass shard tower appear the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

The bushy and very green tree, standing proudly inside a circular iron railing and surrounded by shale and grass at the other end of the tracks, has grown from one of a dozen saplings taken from the nearly 200-year old horse chestnut tree that towered above the secret annex where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis between 1942-1944 in Amsterdam. Felled in a fierce storm in 2010, the lovingly nurtured saplings were offered by the Anne Frank Museum to centers of education throughout the world.  

One of the 34 centers sending in proposals describing why they should be considered an appropriate home away from home for one of the treasured saplings was the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide at Sonoma State University. Created by Dachau and Auschwitz survivor Dr. John Steiner, and supported by Hans Angress, a Berlin Jew who attended school with Anne Frank, the Sonoma Center was awarded one of the precious saplings, a feisty survivor of the famous tree so connected with imprisonment, dreams of freedom and the possibility of life springing from the ashes.

“We particularly liked the concept that the sapling would be placed near the Martin Luther King glass tower and the fact that both were born in 1929, both slain by ignorance and hatred – both lives committed to contribute to human dialogue,” wrote the Anne Frank Museum panel in their letter to Sonoma State University informing them they would receive one of the much sought-after horse chestnut tree saplings from Amsterdam.

The memorial grove was created and crafted by Jann Nunn, a Professor of Sculpture at Sonoma. 

“The narrowing distances between the tracks and the convergence into the lighted tower represent the hope that as civilization progresses and we learn from past errors, there will be fewer incidents of genocide and Holocaust,” explained Nunn at the dedication of the Memorial Grove, attended by 500 guests in 2009. The Oakland-based artist has exhibited, lectured and held residencies internationally since 1987, including in England, Korea and Germany, as well as throughout the United States; her work appearing in both public and private collections.

A few of the 460 ceramic memorial bricks under the railway tracks, including one to murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl

The railway tracks at Sonoma are not resting on wooden sleepers as is the norm, but on 460 ceramic bricks inscribed with the names and communities of those who fell victim to, and possibly survived, genocide. There is no historical order to the way the bricks have been laid out, in recognition that there is no hierarchy of suffering or importance. One of eight different symbols appears on the corner of individual bricks, including an acorn motif for Native American Genocide, a butterfly and barbed wire representing the Holocaust, a Cambodian palace symbolizes the genocide in that country by the Pol Pot Regime, a lone tree for Darfur, and more.

One of the symbols, a dove carrying an olive leaf in its beak, honors Peace Activists and Educators. This symbol appears in the corner of a brick in memory of American Wall Street Journal journalist and musician Daniel Pearl, kidnapped and brutally murdered by Pakistani terrorists in Karachi, 2002. Above the brick dedicated to Daniel Pearl is a brick in honor of the Californian Norcal chapter of the World Kindertransport Association. Some 50 of the almost 10,000 children saved by Britain eventually ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area, 80 kilometers north of Sonoma State University.

My recent visit to the Sonoma campus was at the invitation of an Israel interest group. It was one of the last of the Canadian and American campuses I spoke at over a 3-week period, primarily to explain the work in Israel of The Center for a Shared Society at Givat Haviva, sharing with students and academics some of the 50 years of experience living in Israel and 30 years in what is generally termed as peace education.

As I stood on the bank of the extremely tranquil Sonoma University campus lake, with two students fishing a short distance away, taking in the inscriptions on some of the hundreds of tiles wedged under the weight of the heavy iron tracks in the memorial grove, I was lost for words, simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the heinous, barbarous crimes against humanity laid out side by side at my feet.

I walked away with the words of Martin Luther King ringing in my ears: “Our lives begin to end the day …” 

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About the author

Lydia Aisenberg

Lydia Aisenberg is a journalist, informal educator and special study tour guide. Born in 1946, Lydia is originally from South Wales, Britain and came to live in Israel in 1967 and has been a member...
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