GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park Thursday hosted a dedication ceremony for its latest sculpture, Ways to Say Goodbye, created by artist Ariel Schlesinger to commemorate the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Speaking of the sculpture, a 6-foot-tall aluminum cast of a fig tree with shards of glass placed among the branches, David Hooker, the park’s president and CEO, described the exhibit as a place “for people to gather, reflect, pray.” meditate.”
“Today it stands here in the Meijer Gardens to make a profound memorial statement – commemorating the lives lost, celebrating those who have overcome evil and serving as an important symbol of those who deny the Holocaust,” he said.
The statue was made possible by a donation from the Pestka family. The late family patriarch, Henry Pestka, survived the Holocaust and moved to Grand Rapids in 1946, where he eventually built a successful real estate development company. His son, Steve, is a former prominent state legislator, judge, and businessman in the Grand Rapids area.
During Thursday’s ceremony, Pestka’s family spoke about what the statue would mean to him and the message it offers in memory of the Holocaust.
“We must never forget what humanity is capable of, what happens when we leave the rule of law, when we scapegoat a group of people who are easy to attack, and when humanity just turns against itself,” said Henry Pestka’s grandson, Nathan.
Henry Pestka, remembered as a pillar of the community, died in 2013 at the age of 93.
Schlesinger, 42, created Ways to Say Goodbye in 2019 and was originally shown in the UK. It’s modeled after a fig tree he found on a farm while traveling in northern Italy, according to Meijer Gardens. The tree was chosen for “its character and as a symbol of the Jewish struggle for survival, both during and after the Holocaust,” according to a press release.
“The tree appears fragile and clings to life, but it is also representative of great stamina.”
The shards of glass placed in the branches are reminiscent of the Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass. “The Kristallnacht was the symbolic beginning of the Holocaust, with Nazi mafia murdering Jews and destroying Jewish properties and synagogues across Germany,” said Meijer Gardens.
The journey to Meijer Gardens started about two years ago.
The Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids has contacted the sculpture park about creating a memorial to honor the legacy of Henry Pestka and the millions of other Jews who suffered in the Holocaust, said David Alfonso, board chairman of the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids . In the end, they were able to secure Ways to Say Goodbye with a permanent home in Meijer Gardens.
Speaking at Thursday’s ceremony, which included U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and U.S. Representative Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, Alfonso said he hopes the statue will educate the public about the horror inflicted on Jewish people. people were affected during the holocaust.
“The horror and tragedy of the Holocaust still lingers in the form of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, anti-Zionism and the dwindling number of survivors who remain with us,” he said. “It is our duty, as well as the generations that will follow us, to tell their stories so that we can embody the saying ‘never again’.”
He added: “We hope this sculpture will serve as a beacon of light, a means of inspiration and education for future generations who will view it and carry its message of hope and remembrance.”
Schlesinger lives in Brooklyn, New York, and was born in Jerusalem.
He has lived and worked all over the world, including Britain, Mexico and Germany, and has notable exhibitions around the world, including one outside the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, according to Meijer Gardens.
After the event, he said he hopes the statue conveys “the balance between life and death” and the fragility of life.
“This tree has clearly been traumatized,” he said. “But we don’t know if it’s something he’s been through right now, or if it’s something he brought back from the past. It’s just (its) kind of very fragile existence that I’m curious about.”
Steve Pestak said the statue is important because, “As time goes by and memories fade, it’s important to remember what barbarism people are capable of.”
“It is equally important to reflect on the strength of the survivors and their ability to move on and rebuild their lives,” he said in a statement. “It is our hope that this artwork will foster an appreciation for our shared humanity and be a reminder that hatred and bigotry endure to this day and the consequences of the ultimate dehumanization of people.”
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