DESIGN NARRATIVE FOR THE
UNKNOWN CHILD HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL
BY DOUG THORNTON, AIA
The design of this park was influenced and inspired by the Pennies Project, the Unknown Child Sculpture and the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All three of these focus on children, especially children in unfortunate circumstances and culture. The children of the Horn Lake middle school involved in the Pennies Project, many of which were from impoverished homes, related to the perceived “worthlessness” of a penny and identified with the Jewish children that were likewise considered “worthless” in their time.
The Unknown Child Sculpture poignantly conveys the heart‐wrenching and somber emotions of the Holocaust, especially for the children of the Holocaust. And, finally, as I read the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his heroic efforts to resist the culture of the Nazis as it overtook his country, risking his life to save Jewish children and families from persecution, I began to understand how quietly great evil can overtake a society. This memorial is intended as a Remembrance of those 1.5 million innocent Jewish children, represented by the 1.5 million pennies, embodied by the sculpture and experienced in a contemplative walk back through time with the intention of understanding what happened so that it will never, ever be repeated in our society.
Since this Memorial is focused on children, provision is made for classroom‐sized groups of school‐age children. A bus drop‐off area has several outdoor ‘classrooms’ to facilitate preparing the groups for the experience. These areas will also help queue the groups to help keep the flow of visitors to small sizes. The entry gate, located on the northeast corner will be a classical element made of fine stone and detail. Some of the entry points in this element will be intentionally scaled down to better relate to children.
The intent is to impress and represent the beauty, peace and prosperity of society prior to the Holocaust. Functionally, this gate will also be used for crowd control and counting. Upon entering through the gate, the visitor will encounter a large plaza, paved with smooth, light‐colored stone, or concrete. The Visitor Center is located immediately to the left. This center will provide information, small concessions and retail, and restrooms. The plaza is to be beautifully landscaped, with shade trees, butterfly bushes and flowering plants, year‐round. Peaceful classical music will be played, but restricted to this area. Environs for birds and butterflies will be cultivated. This first quadrant is to represent the peace and prosperity, or at least the perception of such, of pre‐Nazi society. However, the penny-covered concrete memorial will be visible in the distance and the sculpture will barely be visible through a small gap in the monument. This represents those few, like Bonhoeffer, in that prosperous society who could see glimpses of the coming evil. Also, on the outer edge of the walkway, a low wall begins to form. This wall represents the relationship of the Jewish people to the other nations in the world. While there was prejudice and light persecution, other nations were relatively open to Jews at this time. This wall is also an ideal location to place pictures and stories of the children of the Holocaust.
From the arrival point, the walkway descends at a gradual slope toward the monument in a spiral in the shape of the Golden Section. The Golden Section represents many things relevant to this monument. It is a representation of numerical ratios found throughout nature, such as the womb, the progression of cell multiplication into a child and the concept of universal beauty. It is also a manifestation of the Fibonacci Series of numbers, which relates to the generations lost due to the murder of these children.
The first main historical marker is located at a single rail line running east‐west on the western side of the monument. This marker indicates the point in history when Hitler and the Nazis took control of the government. The outer wall has a wide break in it at this point, representing that it was still relatively easy to escape to other nations; however, the walls were beginning to close. The wide gap is to be beautifully landscaped with flowers and lush groundcover, representing the relative pleasantry of most travel at this time. The top elevation of the outer wall remains constant around the monument, but as the walkway drops in elevation, the wall becomes taller, representing the way other nations gradually turned their backs on the plight of the Jewish people.
The single rail line that runs east toward the memorial and west away from the memorial represents the railways used during the holocaust. Trains were used to transport Jews and others deemed “unacceptable” into the prisons, ghettos and concentration camps. Trains were also used to take the fortunate ones away from persecution. The rail to the west is located on a thin gravel platform, tapered to enhance the perception of distance. At the end of the gravel platform is a small infinity pool representing the tears shed by those forced to leave friends and family behind. The rail then sweeps upward toward the sky. The rail to the east intersects the monument, which is a massive concrete structure in the shape of the Star of David, and covered with the pennies. Each penny represents one child killed during the Holocaust. However, trees and landscaping are to obscure the view of the monument to represent the fact that many people did not recognize the coming horror, even though it was quickly developing in their time.
Also, once the visitor steps across the rail line, the paving surface becomes somewhat courser. This will be done by using an exposed aggregate concrete, or courser stone.
As the visitor travels down the spiral pathway toward the monument, the outer wall becomes taller and the landscaping is to become sparser, representing the closing of other nations and the waning of a beautiful and pleasant society. The view of the monument is through a slightly larger gap and the visitor is closer, representing that the coming evil was becoming more visible to some people. This view will still be somewhat obscured by landscaping and not overtly obvious. At the end of this quadrant, another single rail running north and south is encountered. This rail represents the point at which the Nazis turned from Ghettos to Concentration Camps and organized genocide of the Jewish children. At this intersection a similar but longer, gravel platform is located representing the longer route people had to take to escape. The gap of escape is also narrower, representing the closing opportunities. Finally, the pool of tears is larger, representing the increasing sadness and loss.
These east‐west and north‐south rail lines extend the full length of the monument in the four cardinal directions. This not only represents that people were brought to, and escaped from, the Holocaust from all over the world, but it also represents the Christian church at the time. This Cross of rails is a tribute to those Christians who had compassion on the Jewish children and aided in their escape. It is also a condemnation of those Christians who, through their inaction, allowed 1.5 million Jewish children to be killed in the horrors of Concentration Camps.
At this rail line, the sculpture is clearly visible through a larger gap in the monument, and points of the monument actually touch the path representing that many in society were beginning to see and understand what was happening.
Once again, the paving surface becomes even courser once the visitor steps across the rail line. The outer wall is growing taller as the visitor continues to descend toward the monument. The trees are sparse and small. No other landscaping or beauty is present. The sculpture is clearly visible and the monument pointedly intersects the path in this quadrant. The rail running to the east is located within very closely spaced and tall concrete walls representing the extreme difficulty of flight. The pool of tears is the largest at this location. At this location, the outer wall is above head‐height representing the closing of escape opportunities. The pathway beyond this rail line is even courser (with provisions for ADA).
The only tree in this area is one dead tree representing overbearing loss of life and absence of beauty. However, inspired by the book of children’s poems from the Holocaust, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” butterflies made by children visiting the memorial can be placed on this tree to represent that even when all seems lost, there is still hope. Just as after the Holocaust and its overwhelming horrors, the nation of Israel was re‐born against all odds and against all hope.
This is the final point of entry into the monument where the sculpture can be viewed.
The life‐size Unknown Child Sculpture, created by Rick Wienecke, will be placed on a pedestal at eye level and oriented as directed by Rick. As the center of the monumental Star of David is open to the sky, the sculpture will be lit by daylight with shadow patterns moving across the sculpture in early morning and late evening. This area is to be quiet and contemplative. It is large enough for approximately two school classroom‐sized groups as well as several individuals. Seating will be located near the sculpture and around the perimeter. The triangles of the monument will have niches for even more private contemplation. There will be cantilevered glass canopies at each triangle for protection from the rain, and to further block out noise.
The massive concrete structure will be encased with the pennies collected by the school children. At this location, the visitor can touch the pennies to help understand that each penny represents a child that was killed. Also, as the visitor sits in this space, the same gaps that allowed views into the monument, now allow views out to our current society, reminding us that this can happen again if we are not vigilante to prevent it.
To exit, the visitor will follow the north rail line through a masonry arched tunnel which rises in elevation and moves toward daylight. This tunnel represents the slow and gradual progression of society coming out of the Holocaust. This will hopefully help the visitor decompress emotionally. The tunnel walls will be lined with pictures and stories of children that escaped the Holocaust and their stories as they continued with life, ending with the birth of the nation of Israel.
This tunnel will exit in the Welcome Center, which will eventually also house a museum and educational center. The museum space will have a glass wall for viewing the monument and this area will open into an outdoor classroom area with the monument in the background. A lecture hall will be located on the southeast corner of the final museum. This space will overlook the largest pool of tears.
Visitors will finally exit through the gates by which they entered.