Located at the far southern end of Liberty State Park in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, the Liberation Monument inspires a wide range of responses. Joggers stretching at the base of its massive plinth often seem oblivious to the dramatic sculpture towering above; picnickers at the tables in the recreation area just to the west sometimes gaze at it in a blend of curiosity and puzzlement.
More often, however, passersby – alone, with a dog on leash, or with a child in a stroller – stop, look up, and contemplate for a moment the two-ton monument’s meaning.
This is a Holocaust memorial, one of only two in New Jersey. Commissioned by the state in 1983, and dedicated two years later, the monument depicts an American soldier carrying a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp in a secular pietà. It was designed, and executed in bronze by Nathan Rapoport, a Jewish sculptor born in Warsaw in 1911 who escaped to the Soviet Union – and then to the United States – just ahead of the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1939.
There is a visceral power to Rapoport’s sculpture reminiscent of Auguste Rodin and Kathe Kollwitz. The figures’ bodies are slightly distorted, particularly in the hands and feet, and their faces are masks of stylized emotion – evoking, perhaps, the universality of the subject. Yet, while most other Holocaust memorials are abstractions to articulate the enormity of the tragedy and the unspeakable horror of the death camps, like the Holocaust Memorial Park in New York, or Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Liberation Monument is uniquely literal.
In one sense, that is a source of its power: it literally embodies the tragedy in these figures. Yet, in another sense, it evacuates the memory of the tragedy in an appeal to nationalism and national pride. For the Liberation Monument is not really – in fact at all – a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, but to “America’s role of preserving freedom and rescuing the oppressed.” In an odd, and somewhat unsettling way, it enjoins passersby not so much to remember the dead, but the heroism of the American liberators, and to reinforce a nationalist self-image.
It is, perhaps, not objectionable to put a positive spin on a great tragedy. Speaking at the dedication ceremony on 30 May 1985, New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean said the monument invited “a unique blend of serious contemplation and yet enduring hope.” Yet, across the river from where Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were denied admission to the United States in 1940, one has to wonder if this enduring hope merely mystifies the full enormity of a tragic memory.