Pittsburgh’s new World War II Memorial, which was dedicated last month at its site on North Shore Drive, and has Jewish influence from inception to design to content, almost didn’t happen.
Thirteen years in the making, the memorial faced numerous political and financial setbacks. Its proposed site changed three times, and its design had to be re-drawn several times as well.
But it was worth the wait.
The memorial is an elliptically shaped space defined by panels of glass and granite on which the stories of both the Pacific and European theaters of operation are described. The role of southwestern Pennsylvania is highlighted, including the contributions of the region’s manufacturing industries, as well as the accounts of individual veterans.
It was one of those vets, Code Gomberg, Allegheny County commander of the Jewish War Veterans, who instigated the creation of the memorial itself, he told the Chronicle.
“It was back in 1999,” he recalled. “I walked out of the Gold Room at the courthouse, where Tom Foerster made a proclamation for the Pearl Harbor veterans. A reporter stopped me and said, ‘Why is there no World War II memorial?’ ”
“The answer,” said Gomberg, “is that when you came home from the service, a memorial was the furthest thing from your mind. You wanted to get home, find your high school sweetheart — if you didn’t get a ‘dear John’ letter — find a job, find a home.”
But the reporter’s question got Gomberg thinking, and the following week, he and a group of other vets began talking about the possibility of such a memorial.
They soon got a call from Mayor Tom Murphy, who gave the group a check for $50,000 to begin the project, Gomberg said.
That check got the ball rolling, but was a far cry from the $4 million needed to get the memorial built.
“I never thought it would happen,” said Carol Siegel, the local art consultant on the project, who has helped with the memorial’s design and implementation since its inception all those years ago. “I thought it was an exercise in futility and it would never be.”
The project faced a mass of political red tape, and members of the memorial committee had to work with and incorporate the agendas of many other interests, including the Arts Commission, the Stadium Authority and Three Rivers Park, constantly altering the design of the memorial to meet those bodies’ requirements.
Fundraising was yet another challenge, Siegel said.
“We had huge fundraising problems,” she said. “The veterans’ committee thought they could sell lapel pins for $2 apiece, and raise enough money.”
Eventually, one of the veterans, John Vento, was able to secure much of the funding from the state, according to Siegel.
In addition to their naive ideas on fundraising, many of the veterans had other ideas that were, at times challenging to work with, Siegel said. For example, everyone wanted his or her own story or photo to appear on the monument, while there was not enough space to accommodate them all.
“There was an undercurrent of competition among them,” Siegel said. “Everybody wanted to be on there in perpetuity.”
But the stories of at least two Jewish Pittsburghers did make the cut.
One of them — Gomberg’s — is a recounting of his rescue of “Mike,” a 12-year-old boy whose parents were slaughtered at Auschwitz.
The other is the story of David Glick, a Jewish businessman from Pittsburgh, who traveled throughout Germany, beginning in 1936, to help 90,000 Jews gain permission to leave the country.
The Jewish story is also recounted in photographs.
One of the most arresting images on the monument is a large, three-panel photo of emaciated prisoners in a concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for “scientific” experiments. The Army’s 80th Infantry Division liberated the camp on May 7, 1945.
“The photo shows the truth, the many victims, the depth and breadth of Hitler’s madness, why we had to fight,” said Mary Baron, a film and photo researcher, who secured permission to use all the photos on the memorial.
Barron was hired to find the photos used on the monument, depicting both the Pacific and European theaters of operations, as well as subjects and activities that told the story of the participation by the families at home, with an emphasis on those from Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania.
The photos and the narratives on the memorial are intended to be a lasting tribute to those who sacrificed so much during the war, according to Larry Kirkland, who designed the monument in conjunction with the firm Design Workshop.
“It’s not an abstract piece,” said Kirkland. “The art historian Harriet Senie calls the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., a virtual cemetery because it lists all the names of those who died. We wanted this to not be a virtual cemetery because when the people who knew that group pass on, it doesn’t mean anything.
“We wanted it to tell a more compelling story, the story that led to changes all over the world and in Pennsylvania and southwest Pennsylvania. We wanted to tell a bigger story that would compel you to come back and examine it over time. It is dense with information, which is what we intended.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)