A ‘Triumph of Memory’ at URI

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In a cold, unrelenting rain on April 26, students and faculty scurried across the plaza outside the University of Rhode Island’s Robert L. Carothers Library. I knelt on the ground and made the first mark, in thick yellow railroad chalk, on the wet pavement. 

I slowly completed a free-hand silhouette of a figure, reminiscent of those drawn by detectives at the scene of a crime.  Where a concentration camp identification number would have been tattooed on an arm, I firmly printed the family name of a victim of the Holocaust. My list had 72 names – a tiny fraction of the number of lives tragically lost – men, women and children with connections to Rhode Island families. It was going to be a long day.

I had first visited URI’s Hillel at the invitation of Executive Director Amy Olson.   Two students active in Hillel, Sydney Brown and Lindsay Denenberg, asked me to develop an art project to encourage participation by Jewish students, as well as those from URI’s broader community, in honoring and preserving the memory of Holocaust victims as part of Hillel’s Holocaust Remembrance Week 2017.

We felt, as did Nietzsche, that art would provide a valuable portal to understanding a painful subject like the Holocaust: “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” And thus, “Triumph of Memory,” an all-day installation and workshop, was born.

Denenberg and Brown were tireless as we worked on the pavement for hours to draw a commemorative silhouette for each of the 72 people who had perished at the hands of Hitler and his henchmen. Brittney Lief, a student filming the project for a documentary, also provided invaluable assistance.

Soon, we were all completely soaked and covered in chalk. In an effort worthy of Sisyphus, as we toiled on, the first figures were being washed away by the rain. We agreed this was befitting of memory’s transience. It would have been wrong, somehow, doing the holy work of preserving the memory of 72 of the fallen if the day had been sunny and warm.

Responses from students and faculty were varied, from bewildered to intrigued. Someone whispered “murderers,” and quickly walked away. Many walked right on top of the “bodies,” while others wanted to know more. Why yellow chalk? To reference the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear. Why 72 names? It has been 72 years since the end of World War II, and 72 is four times the Hebrew letter chai, which means life, and is equated to the number 18 in the gematria.

As I wrote the name on the arm of the last silhouette, the sun suddenly broke through – and stayed just long enough to warm us before the clouds returned.

After a change into dry clothes, we set up a workshop in the Memorial Student Union.  Arriving students were given one of 72 thick, black rustic paper cards pre-drawn with a silhouette and a family name.  Poetry by Yehuda Amichai, a former poet laureate in Israel, and other inspirational texts were at each table.

Using colored pencils and crayons, 35 student participants produced intriguing cards with messages of hope and promises to never to forget.

The students were visibly moved by their responsibility to immortalize the people whose silhouettes were already disappearing from the pavement.

The compiled cards were mounted and placed on display at the Hillel building as testimony to the fact that memories of the fallen cannot be vandalized, denied, eroded, defaced or forgotten.

AMY ART COHEN, of Providence, is an award-winning creativity specialist and teaching artist with expertise in cross-curricula innovation and community engagement for diverse populations. She can be reached at amyartcohen@yahoo.com.