The four adult Jewish women face the Nazi camera, their arms linked. They know they are going to be murdered. The young girl huddled against her mother possibly does not. In the center of the doomed group stands the matriarch. Her arms are crossed over her waist and she is wearing boots.
In the background are their Nazi murderers and the piles of clothing previous women and girls were ordered to take off before being shot.
This is the moment captured in Victoria Milstein’s sculpture “She Wouldn’t Take Off Her Boots,” which will be unveiled in Greensboro’s LeBauer Park at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 18, at 5 p.m. It is North Carolina’s first holocaust memorial monument.
The photo was taken during the Liepāja massacre of December 15, 1941, a series of mass executions committed by the Nazis after the German occupation of Latvia. Thousands of Jewish women and children were forced to strip before being shot.
The monument inspired by the photo is being named in honor of Eva Weiner and Sofia Guralnik, who saved their children, and Shelly Weiner and Raya Kizhnerman, by hiding them in Nazi-occupied Poland for almost two years. Shelly Weiner, now a resident of Greensboro, contributed the lead gift that enabled this project to proceed.
Her sculptor friend Victoria Milstein first saw this photo when it accompanied “Tell them I was not afraid,” a New York Times op-ed by Bret Stephens, about Holocaust survivor Raya Mazin, his maternal grandmother’s first cousin. But before seeing it, Milstein was haunted by the holocaust, and was wrestling with the idea of a piece inspired by it.
“I’m an American Israeli Jew who has been a portrait artist for 30 years. I’d lived in Israel, and learning about the Holocaust when I was 17 years old has had such an impact on my life, knowing that this could actually happen, that a civilized society with music, culture and art could actually become murderous and kill over six million, and millions of others, including Roma, the disabled, LGBT. It wrecked my world.”
After Milstein, who grew up in New York, moved to Greensboro, she went on a trip with the Greensboro Jewish Federation and Temple Emanual to the March of the Living, an annual educational program which brings students from around the world to Poland, where they explore the remnants of the Holocaust.
“I went to the women’s death camp, and I had voices in my head, shouting at me. I was open to do another body of work, and this was just screaming in my ears that I had to do the story of the women and children, because of the hate and how it happened. Four hundred years of slavery in our own country, what we deal with here in Greensboro with the Civil Rights Museum, and what we’re trying to do here, it’s all the same story about how we deal with hate and those who see others as inhuman.”
She began listening to stories of those who survived the camps, and those they lost in them. “Typically, in the past, we’ve heard more from men who survived, but here in Greensboro, as I brought elders in, this whole project stated with Holocaust women survivors. As I worked on the project, more and more stories of women came out. So, I decided I was going to a sculpture or body of work about what happened to those women in their journey.”
She says living in Greensboro was just as crucial to her own creative journey as the trip to Poland.
“This city place that’s helped me become a stronger person and helped me understand about racism. It’s always been a growth place for me, and I’ve met so many inspiring women here.”
While doing a TED talk on another subject, Milstein talked about the upcoming project, and displayed a 7-foot pastel inspired by the photograph. The audience gasped when she unveiled it.
“So, I made the maquette, which is about a 16-inch study in clay, and I started to bring women leaders from our community. I brought in one of my mentors, Shirley Fry and I brought in Shelley Weiner, who is an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who started the Holocaust Council of North Carolina. And I said to them, I want to do a piece of public art that speaks about hate and antisemitism and teaches about the holocaust. Because so many are ignorant of it.”
This was driven home when she Googled for more images of the Liepāja massacre. “Photos of these women came up on a website about examples of Shabby Chic. I only tell you this because it shows you how much we have to do in terms of education. I am shocked and horrified by the percentage of younger Americans who either never heard of the Holocaust or who don’t believe it happened.”
In September 2020, the Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the first-ever state-by-state study of Holocaust awareness among Americans between 18 and 39, found that one in nine believed that the Holocaust never happened, 23% believed that the number of those killed has been exaggerated, 12% said they’d never heard the word “Holocaust” before, and 11% believed that Jews rather than Nazis were to blame for the death toll.
“I told my friend Rob Overman, at the time director of Greensboro Downtown Parks Incorporated, that I’d like to have this memorial in a downtown park, and he agreed. Nancy Hoffman, the District 4 representative for Greensboro City Council, also agreed. I wanted it to be in Carolyn’s Garden in LeBauer Park, as it was created by a Jewish woman, Carolyn LeBauer, who donated money for this world-class park and she has a garden beside the library. That was my dream, and the ad hoc committee decided to have it there, and the proclamation went to City Council and they voted 100% in favor of it. Councilwoman Hoffman’s husband, Jack Hoffman of blessed memory, was a Holocaust survivor.”
The National Holocaust Memorial Museum recorded an oral history interview with Jack Hoffman in 2006, nine years before his death, which can be viewed on the museum’s website. In it, he talks about his memory of Kristallnacht and the destruction of the Synagogues, and being sent on the Kindertransport to London. His younger brother, who stayed behind, died in Buchenwald, and other family members died in camps.
“At City Council, Nancy Hoffman read the proclamation in tears and I cried, too. And I then talked to my friend Jon Hardister. And Jon said, ‘Victoria, I’m going to help you, the state of North Carolina is going to help you.’ And the governor appointed me on the board of the Holocaust Council of North Carolina. That council is in charge of Holocaust education in our schools. And so, I kind of got a statewide initiative on this project.”
“I am honored to have played at least a minor part in making Victoria’s dream a reality,” said Hardister, Republican Majority Whip for the North Carolina House on Representatives. “This monument will promote the understanding of history and the importance of human rights.”
Milstein is grateful to all the people who helped make this happen.
“Shelly Weiner said to me, ‘Victoria, I’m going to help you raise this money, I’m going to be your first sponsor,’ and this is about her as much as anyone else. She posed for the matriarch in the middle who is holding everyone. Shelly posed for her hands; she was the key.”
Nancy Hoffman is also proud of what Milstein has accomplished. “There is an education component to the sculpture once it’s unveiled, and that will be video that tells the story of Shelly Weiner. I was videoed to tell Jack’s story. He would have loved to have seen something like this come to fruition.”
Milstein said only recently saw the memorial after it was cast in bronze from her full-size clay sculpture, and it took her breath way. “Oh. My. God. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before seeing it. When you change media, from pastel to clay to bronze, it changes a little bit. I can’t wait to unveil it.”
One thing Milstein wants to make clear is that the title, “She Wouldn’t Take Off Her Boots,” is her interpretation.
“I don’t know if she wouldn’t take her boots off. It was my impression, my inspiration in the moment. Some of the interviews have said she wouldn’t take off her boots, as if that was the story that was written from her voice, and I don’t know that. I can’t know that. This is the result of my interaction with the photo.”
April 18, the day on which the sculpture will be unveiled at 5 p.m. in LeBauer Park, is Yom HaShoah, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.
“We will have candle lighting for the six million, and for all those killed who were not Jewish. We have community leaders, from Nancy Hoffman to John Swain of the Civil Rights Museum, to light the candles, as well as Ivan Canada from North Carolina Community and Justice. We have a choir of community children. It is for the whole community.”
Milstein feels this particularly important in 2023, when antisemitism had had such a resurgence in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League tracked 3,697 incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault targeting Jewish people and communities last year, the highest number ever recorded since the ADL first began collecting data in 1979.
“As Jew, as an American Jewish woman artist, as an Israeli, this is why I am doing this work. If you work against hate, it’s about all hate. The more I learn on our 400 years of Slavery, the Greensboro massacre, all these things, it’s the same hate of seeing people as others as not human, as not understanding their culture and not seeing them as real people, that’s what this is about.”
For more information about the unveiling and dedication ceremony and the creation of the memorial, check out womenoftheshoahjp.org.