Holocaust sculpture in Pittsburgh a vivid reminder of 'never again'

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It's been more than a decade since Pam Savitz was a student at Community Day School, where she was one of hundreds at the private Jewish school in Squirrel Hill who participated in what became a 17-year, all-consuming project to memorialize the vast human toll of the Holocaust.

Ms. Savitz, 26, one of a team of three students in 2002 who submitted the winning design used to create the gleaming glass-and-steel Star of David sculpture, got her first glimpse of the finished product Sunday at a dedication ceremony.

"It was really emotional for me. It took me back to all those years I was a kid," said Ms. Savitz, now a medical student at West Virginia University.

"There definitely was a time when we weren't sure what would come of it."

Started in 1996 by now-retired social studies teacher Bill Walter as a way to give his students a way to fathom the number of Jews systematically killed by the Nazi regime that ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945, Mr. Walter began a drive to collect 6 million pop tabs, which were sorted into 960 glass blocks and assembled into the 9-foot high Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs Holocaust sculpture and park that was finished last week on the campus on Forward Avenue.

"To finally see their meaning and what they represented was really breathtaking," Ms. Savitz said. "The sculpture does a great job of grounding people in the reality of it and how great a number 6 million really is."

At the dedication, Neal Guthrie, director of the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said the project "has inspired a new generation to gain a deeper understanding of the magnitude of the Holocaust, to learn its important lessons for society today and to help ensure that 'never again' remains the word."

Mr. Guthrie was among about a dozen speakers to celebrate the culmination of the endeavor, including school leaders, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, 5th District city Councilman Corey O'Connor, lead donors Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt, former students, and local Holocaust survivor groups.

"Using this sculpture as an inspiration, it is only you and I, each of us ... who carry the light of tolerance and acceptance into the world," said Elena Hiatt Houlihan, an artist-in-residence with the Pennsylvania Arts Council who helped students and school leaders through the process of selecting materials and design. "It's only if we do this that we can create a planet free of genocide and persecution, where each individual is cherished for the gifts that they bring."

Avi Baran Munro, head of the pre-K through eighth-grade school of about 272 students, said the sculpture and park, whose $1 million price tag includes an endowment for maintenance and Holocaust education, will be open to the public and will serve a "cautionary role."

It is also intended to be a local resource for teachers and students studying the Holocaust.

"The students who visit here will take their experiences back to their schools and homes and use their voices to remind all who hear them that we must never forget the innocent lives that were lost," said Harry Schneider, co-chair of the Holocaust Survivors' Association of Pittsburgh. Mr. Schneider was just 2 when Germany invaded Poland, forcing his family to flee to the forest surrounding his village, where they lived for two years before escaping into Russia. Many of his relatives who stayed behind were killed by the SS.

Late Sunday afternoon, as most of the crowd had dwindled away and shadows were growing long, the sculpture was already fulfilling its educational mission for Missy Skaugen of Cheswick, who brought her sons Wyatt, 9, and Noah, 6, to see it after reading about the dedication ceremony in the newspaper.

Wyatt said he has been learning more about World War II since hearing stories about his grandfather, who served in the war. With the Cub Scouts, Wyatt had also collected pop tabs for charity, but nothing on the scale that he saw Sunday.

"That's a lot of people that died," he said.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.

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