Holocaust memorial design OK’d for Statehouse; litigation threatened

An artists rendering rests on the proposed site where a Holocaust memorial will be built on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse.
An artists rendering rests on the proposed site where a Holocaust memorial will be built on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse.

COLUMBUS — Despite the threat of a constitutional lawsuit, a state panel on Thursday approved a large Statehouse bronze and stainless steel Holocaust memorial featuring a broken Star of David.

The Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board longtime chairman, former Senate President Richard Finan, cast the sole negative vote, then told the board and audience he was resigning.

The memorial will be erected on the Statehouse’s south lawn with a low limestone wall next to it displaying “If You Save One Life, It Is As If You Saved the World.” The board approved the design created by Daniel Libeskind, renowned architect and artist and son of Holocaust survivors.

Mr. Finan, a Cincinnati Republican, said he would have been willing to accept a smaller memorial absent the Jewish religious symbol of the Star of David. The latter has drawn the threat of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of placing a religious symbol on Statehouse grounds, even though a plaza around the corner prominently displays the state motto: “With God All Things Are Possible.”

An effort is under way to raise $1.8 million in private funds to pay for the memorial itself, while the state is paying for site preparation.

Joyce Garver Keller, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, said the monument does not exclusively remember Jewish victims of the Holocaust but also other victims and those Ohioans who fought to liberate concentration camps. She choked back tears as she described the inspiration for Mr. Libeskind’s design.

“It’s about a young fellow in a camp and a relative,” she said. “He is chosen to survive, and the Star of David is stamped on his forehead. His cousin is not chosen to survive and is sent in another direction. He manages to get back to his cousin, and puts spit on his forehead, puts their foreheads together, and his cousin has now the image of the Star of David and is saved. Within weeks the camp is liberated.”

Mr. Finan complained that the governor and General Assembly used a budget bill last year to mandate the memorial’s construction, sidestepping the normal advisory board process. The board was created in the early 1990s to protect the integrity of the Statehouse at a time when it was undergoing a major historical restoration.

The controversy was further stoked this week with the erection of a temporary, makeshift mock-up of the memorial on the Statehouse grounds. The mock-up has since been removed, leaving behind patches of dead grass.

Mr. Finan’s resignation, officially submitted last week by letter, is effective on Oct. 30.

Joe Sommer, Ohio board member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said litigation is likely. “The foundation believes that [the Star of David’s] prominent display in a Statehouse memorial would give the impression of government endorsement of Judaism,” he told the board. “Such endorsement is inconsistent with the First Amendment’s requirement of governmental neutrality towards religion.”

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.