A group of activists unveiled five new stones memorializing non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust at Sheepshead Bay’s Holocaust Memorial Park this weekend, capping off nearly two decades of fighting for the right against a local committee opposed to the installation.
The stones, dispersed throughout the public park, remember the persecution of homosexual victims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, Roma and Sinti, and “asocials.” The unveiling ended nearly 20 years of struggle for broader recognition within the park. Members of the Holocaust Memorial Committee, charged with reviewing and approving the placement of new names and markers, held a protest led by City Council candidate Ari Kagan, who complained that the group of “outsiders” went over the committee’s head in getting approval to place the stone, and represented a threat to the memory of Jewish victims.
Despite the protest, the activists who pushed for the markers’ placement held a solemn service on Sunday and viewed the unveiling as a victory for the memory of lesser-known victims of the Nazi atrocities – and for social acceptance of those groups today.
“Things have changed in the last two decades,” said Richard Landman, the gay son of two Jewish Holocaust survivors who has spearheaded the initiative for inclusion. He noted the smaller size of the protest compared to previous years and the acceptance from politicians including former Mayor Ed Koch and Congressman Jerrold Nadler.
“I’m looking at this toward the future. This is a city park, where there are many people who are affected by the Nazi-era of the Holocaust. I want that, in the future, other groups should come here and learn their lessons of the Holocaust,” he added.
Landman was joined by represenatives from Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, Disabilities Network of NYC, Disabled in Action and Voice of Roma.
The proponents of inclusion have been fighting for the addition of the stones at Holocaust Memorial Park at Emmons Avenue and West End Avenue since the early 1990s, before the memorial had even been completed. Landman formed the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Children of Holocaust Survivors in an era when gay and lesbian people were being given the boot from second generation survivors organizations. Around that time he also learned that the original plans to honor non-Jewish victims had been nixed, and he began fighting to have them reinstated.
The battle made headlines as early as 1996 – a year before the park was officially dedicated by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The committee, which sponsored the project in conjunction with then-Borough President Howard Golden, claimed that recognition on the base of the eternal light in the memorial’s centerpiece was sufficient – clashing with the wishes of the park’s architect. The New York Times reported at the time:
”We felt it was redundant and did not have to be included because it was in the summary,” said Ira Bilus of Manhattan Beach, a committee member.
Besides, Mr. Bilus said, the architect, George Vellonakis, was not responsible for content. ”He was commissioned to do the architecture and the design,” he said. ”We were commissioned to do the writing.”
Mr. Vellonakis has continued to press for separate recognition of other groups. ”I really felt it was my responsibility to recognize every group and represent history properly,” he said. ”As the artist and designer, it’s my concept.”
As the project went forward, the committee initially won out with the aid of sympathetic politicians like Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who also didn’t want non-Jewish victims recognized with additional stones in the park.
“It was part of the original plans, but because of politics it never got done and I thought that was a shonda,” Landman said.
Still, Landman made a request, he said, nearly every year for approximately 15 years, which was denied by the group without justification. Finally, in the early 2000s, Landman appealed to the Parks Department and the Mayor’s Office, appealing with an Article 78 proceeding, which charged that the committee’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” and in violation of the state constitution.
The Parks Department established an appeals process for the memorial as a result, and created a Blue Ribbon advisory panel to review Landman’s request – ultimately greenlighting it.
The stones were quietly installed in the park in July 2012, but Landman held off having a formal dedication for a year to test the community’s reaction. He also tried to keep this weekend’s ceremony quiet, hoping to avoid the ire of opponents.
“I wanted it to be a memorial, a commemoration of those victims who died,” Landman said. “I don’t want it to be a big, loud protest. It’s done. We’ve done it. It was done last year.”
Still, a protest was had.
Led by District Leader Ari Kagan, a candidate for City Council and member of the Holocaust Memorial Committee, a crowd of about two dozen gathered before the stones’ unveiling for a series of speeches delivered largely in Russian.
Kagan has been outspoken about the placement of the stones. He did not respond to a request for an interview as this article went to publication, but did express his concerns via Facebook.
I am outraged that the City of New York completely ignored the opinion of the Holocaust Memorial Committee, but preferred to listen to the opinions of the International Association of Gay and Lesbian Children of Holocaust Survivors, and groups like the Communist Party – USA and LAMBDA Democrats.
The Nazis killed many people during the war, but this sacred park at Sheepshead Bay is the Holocaust Memorial Park – not the “Nazi Victims Park” or the “WWII Victims Park”. The Committee made sure that all non-Jewish victims of Nazi atrocities were acknowledged in this park.
In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn tried to impose on us their decision to install these five new markers. Unlike every other stone or inscription, these five markers were to be installed without any review by historical committees or without the involvement of the communities of South Brooklyn.
We protested and the Mayor backed off. But today -four years later- we learned that the City once again ignored many local Holocaust survivors organizations and caved in to the demands of outsiders who clearly have a political agenda.
It is very sad!
In response to a commenter on his post, Kagan suggested that honoring non-Jewish victims could dilute the persecution faced by Jews. He wrote:
You don’t put on the same level political prisoners, asocial elements and Jews. You could change your political views, but Jews could not change their Jewishness.
But at the protest itself, when some members of the crowd argued against the inclusion of homosexual victims in the park, Kagan said that their opposition has nothing to do with the broader inclusion, but with the fact that the group went over the committee’s head. He claimed that the group was not consulted on the installation of the stones, a point also made in a 2009 statement from the committee, in which they wrote:
The Holocaust Memorial Committee strongly objects to what appears to be the politically motivated manner in which this proposal has been unilaterally approved by the City and the Parks Department – without consultation or cooperation with the Holocaust Memorial Committee and without consideration for the community that has supported this Memorial since its inception – and without adhering to the provisions of the city’s own Memo of Understanding guiding the Park’s operation.
Landman, though, said the group needs to get its facts straight.
“I did it through the memorial committee for 15 years. For 15 years I was rejected. I am an attorney and a law professor. I said enough already. So I went to the government, to the mayor and to the Parks commissioner and to the Constitution of the State of New York. They cannot delegate their power to a committee, to a community group,” he said.
Landman has copies of some of his letters to the committee on his website.
The protest ended just as Landman began his ceremony, and there were few exchanges between the two groups. But a passerby who stopped to speak with the opponents and watch the ceremony began shouting anti-gay remarks at the group. In an e-mail to Sheepshead Bites, Landman later said the protesters not only had their facts wrong, but created an atmosphere of intolerance.
“Besides setting a climate where unstable people could feel comfortable riding their bikes and yelling ‘Faggot’ and anti-Obama and anti-non-Jewish slogans during our Unveiling Ceremony due to their protest, it was bizarre and embarrassing,” Landman wrote. “They are totally off base with the facts, history, laws, procedures, etc. and shouldn’t be misusing the lessons learned from the Holocaust for their personal reasons.”
Still, he said, he prefers to remember the day optimistically.
“Finally, I lived to this day that this could finally get done,” he said. “I think this is a kernel of history that’s going to grow. It has taken 20 years just to have the climate that I don’t have that many people screaming, and even the people screaming are clearly the minority.”