That they not be forgotten…

Venture Center updating memorial to disabled Holocaust victims

STORY & PHOTO BY BOB BAIRD

pondbird_092014Work going on for the past few weeks behind the Venture Center is more than a facelift for a small pond.

Indeed, it is a facelift on a symbol of tolerance and remembrance.

In 1997, Camp Venture, which provides a variety of services for Rockland’s developmentally disabled, dedicated the pond as a memorial to the 200,000 disabled individuals who were systematically slaughtered by the Nazi killing machine during the Holocaust.

Imagine: Individuals very much like those Venture proudly serves today singled out for death almost 70 years ago simply because of their handicaps.

Venture, under the leadership of County Legislator John Murphy and the loving Lukens family – first founder Kathleen Lukens, followed by her son Dan – has vowed never to allow that dark episode, so often lost in the overwhelming millions murdered by madmen, to be forgotten.

The 1997 dedication was a remembrance that cut across religious and ethnic lines. Cardinal John J. O’Connor, Rabbi Simon Lauber of Bikur Cholim and other religious leaders spoke and stood side by side in remembering the painful time when, under a regime of madmen, disability became a death sentence.

The pond, between Venture Center on Route 340 and the Kathleen Lukens Independent Living Center, has remained a symbol of remembrance.

But over nearly two decades – and particularly the past few years – it has become something of a fading memory.

Armed with a plan to restore and uplift what is believed to be the only memorial in the United States to the disabled killed in the Holocaust, Murphy teamed with Paul Adler to upgrade the pond and the park that surrounds it and elevate it – linking it symbolically with another pond half a world away.

As the Nazis perfected the mass slaughter of Jews, the disabled and other groups they viewed as inferior, they faced a practical problem – disposal of the remains.

Firing squads and gas chambers and other means of mass extermination called for mass graves. Turning to incineration, there were still ashes to dispose of.

At Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, the answer was to deposit those ashes in a pond on the grounds.

Even now, almost 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz in December 1945, a stone tossed into that pond still yields up a cloud of ashes that turns the surface gray.

It is as if the tormented souls of the Jews, disabled and other victims are crying out “let us not be forgotten.”

On Oct. 2, Camp Venture will take a step to assuring that they are remembered for all time.

That morning, Matilda Cuomo, former First Lady of New York State, who presided over the 1997 dedication, will return to Venture Center to twin Venture’s “Memorial Pond of the 200,000” with the Pond of Ashes at Auschwitz.

To make Venture’s pond worthy of the connection across an ocean and decades, there has been vigorous work in upgrading the property.

Artwork in place since 1997, but that took a beating in Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, has been restored and repositioned.

The entire area has been landscaped, new benches built by Habitat for Humanity have been added, creating new spots for meditation, a fishing pier has been rebuilt and a new asphalt walking and wheelchair path has been added to the pond’s perimeter.

Already, Venture consumers are enjoying the path, no longer forced to compete with cars as they did riding their wheelchairs in the Venture Center parking areas.

Central to the restoration is the addition of a stone marker that is an exact duplicate of one at the edge of the Pond of Ashes at Auschwitz.

Murphy and Adler have spearheaded an ongoing fundraising campaign to pay for the cost of the restoration, the effort boosted by a $25,000 contribution from the Venture Foundation.

They have also created a diverse corps of volunteer “ambassadors,” spanning religions, political parties and communities, to spread the word, raise funds and generate interest in the twinning effort.

But the effort to twin the two ponds, while symbolic, has a more concrete purpose, too.

“We had an epiphany,” Murphy says. “Since there are only two such ponds in the world, they should be ‘twinned,’ as are many locations throughout the world. This would bring two generations, two worlds, two religions, two classes of people robbed of their nobility together in the minds and hearts of a public that may have grown immune to the lessons of indifference.”

That can only be a positive in a county where religious differences too often generate hard feelings and suspicions and too frequently result in acts of vandalism directed both at synagogues, nativity scenes and other symbols and centers of faith.

The cooperative effort between faiths, Murphy says, also comes at a time when massive budget cuts and changes in philosophy threaten dramatic changes in the services available to those with disabilities. The lessons of the past, he believes, can help remind caring individuals just how tragic the outcomes can be when indifference wins the day.

“What better example exists to prove our brotherhood and sisterhood of a shared history of vulnerability and inhumanity,” Murphy asks, “than our ‘twinning,’ which is a formal public bonding and bridge-building?”

For information, reservations for the Oct. 2, 10 a.m. ceremony at Venture Center, or to make a donation, visit www.venturefoundation.org or call 845-624-5402.