Originally published in the Greensboro News & Record

Written By Dawn Kane

GREENSBORO — The 1941 photograph shows four women and a little girl standing arm in arm, moments before they were murdered by the Nazis.

They had been told to strip to their underwear in the freezing cold. But the older woman in the center would not take off her black boots.

Artist Victoria Carlin Milstein draws on this picture by a Nazi photographer to sculpt a larger-than-life memorial monument to those who died in the Holocaust, the systematic murder of six million European Jews from 1941 to 1945 by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.

Sometime in 2023, the bronze sculpture will stand in the city’s Carolyn & Maurice LeBauer Park, downtown at 208 N. Davie St.

Titled “She Wouldn’t Take Off Her Boots,” it will be North Carolina’s first women’s Holocaust monument.

“I just couldn’t get over these women,” Milstein said, her voice breaking. “The little girl, she shows the horror that is going to happen… They were marched to the beaches and massacred.”

It will stand in the LeBauer Park spot known as Carolyn’s Garden, as an enduring witness to women and children who have been victims of genocide. It will honor the strength and resilience of all women.

The women who inspired Milstein’s sculpture were among 2,749 Jewish women and children who were victims of a Nazi mass-murder campaign over three days in the Latvian town of Liepaja. It was the largest of the Liepaja massacres.

In years following the Holocaust, most stories involved men. Since Milstein has been working on her project, she has noticed more stories and books focused on women. 

“Their journey was different because they had the children,” she said. “They had a specific cruelty to what happened to them.” 

To remember these acts of inhumanity, this story must be told, Milstein said. 

“The fact that this incredible city of Greensboro accepted this, to put in their premiere park, in Carolyn’s Garden — it just says who we are,” Milstein said. 

“Monuments are coming down, but we are rising up pieces of artwork — public art — that tell us who we are as a community and a society.”

Milstein and others hope that children and adults will visit the monument, then visit the International Civil Rights Center and Museum at 134 S. Elm St. 

That would, she said, “make this a destination for humanity and civil rights and for social justice.”

The sculpture will come to LeBauer Park through Women of the Shoah-Jewish Placemaking, a nonprofit organization founded by Milstein and her twin sister, Elizabeth Alberti.

The organization combines art as social practice to allow communities to reflect upon, honor and learn from the plight of women and children who died in the Holocaust.

A $725,000 fundraising campaign — through a fund established at the Jewish Foundation of Greensboro — will finance the costs.

That will cover creating and erecting the monument, as well as creating educational, self-guided tours around it, and an endowment to manage related educational programs and keep them updated.

That will help teachers as they integrate Holocaust and genocide education into middle and high school curriculum — no easy subject to teach.

“We have to teach our children the mistakes of the past so that we don’t repeat them,” Milstein said.

So far, the fundraising campaign has raised about $600,000, Project Manager Ron Milstein said. 

That includes $250,000 appropriated by the N.C. General Assembly. Rep. Jon Hardister of Whitsett introduced the funding request, but it moved beyond an individual bill and became an appropriation in the state budget.

Last month, the City Council passed through the $250,000 payment to the Women of the Shoah-Jewish Placemaking fund. 

The memorial will become a gift to the city of Greensboro. 

The sculpture is not an exact duplicate of the photograph. Victoria Milstein used the photograph of the generations of women as inspiration.

“We see them as human beings and the Nazis did not,” Victoria Milstein said. “That’s why they photographed them right before they were brutally murdered.”

“Also, monuments are usually famous people,” Milstein said. “But we see them as our sisters, mothers and daughters. We see them as a symbol of all genocide of all women and children.”

She first created a 16-inch clay maquette as a preliminary model.

She continues to sculpt the large memorial in oil-based clay in her downtown studio. She will receive a small stipend, and be reimbursed for expenses and studio time.

Her family also pledged funds to create one of the educational presentations as part of the on-site tour. 

This summer, the piece will go to Carolina Bronze Sculpture in Seagrove to be cast in bronze.

The sculpture will include a bronze camera, through which visitors also will be encouraged to look. On the side of the camera, it will say: “You are a witness.”

“It takes a viewer to finish the art,” Milstein said.

She hopes that the sculpture will stand on a stone from Israel.

Local Holocaust survivor Shelly Weiner became the monument’s first donor. 

It has been dedicated to her mother, Eva Weiner, and to her aunt, Sofia Guralnik. 

Weiner finds the current news from Ukraine particularly heart-wrenching.

In 1941 in Ukraine, her mother and aunt hid from the Nazis for 28 months. They protected Shelly, then 4, and her cousin, Rachel Kizherman, 5.

“We had very little food, and couldn’t talk,” recalled Weiner, now 84. “They kept two little girls quiet and behaving for all that time.”

“We didn’t have toys and books,” Weiner said. “We had straw we used to make animals and dolls, and our mothers’ stories.”

After the war, her mother and aunt “did everything in their power to continue to live normal lives,” Weiner said. The two women both died in their 90s in Greensboro.

“If it wasn’t for the bravery of those two women, we wouldn’t be here today,” Weiner said. “And I wouldn’t have the wonderful life I have here in Greensboro. They were women who sacrificed everything to save their children.”

In the sculpture, Weiner’s hands became the model for the older woman’s hands.

Weiner is a founding member of the N.C. Holocaust Council, on which Milstein also serves.

Milstein long has been known for her portraiture, but she sculpts as well. She was among artists who painted on boarded-up storefronts during the social unrest of summer 2020. 

They expressed thoughts and emotions amid nationwide protests over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Before living in Greensboro, Milstein lived in Israel for nine years and had her children there. Her grandchild was born there.

In 2018, on a March of the Living trip, she walked through the women’s section of Auschwitz, a concentration and extermination camp operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland.

Others were killed like the five — marched to the beaches and shot dead on the edges of trenches.

“I knew that I had to tell the story of how most of the women and children died,” she said. “So when I saw this picture online, it spoke to me.”

When visitors walk around the monument, they can take a self-guided tour by scanning its QR codes on their smartphones for information about the sculpture, the Holocaust.

QR stands for “Quick Response.” It’s a machine-readable code consisting of an array of black and white squares. They store lots of data that users can access instantly.

Weiner appreciates that the monument will serve as a teaching tool. She herself has spoken at schools around the Southeast.

“It’s another avenue for teachers and students, and the public in general, to realize what happened in the Holocaust,” Weiner said.