The unveiling of a Holocaust memorial mural at La Jolla’s Congregation Beth El, 8660 Gilman Drive, was planned months ago for Thursday, May 2, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day. But it seemed eerily coincidental for it to have occurred within a week of the synagogue shooting that placed San Diego at the epicenter of anti-Semitism in the world’s eyes.
“It’s really a sad reminder of how we need memorials like this, so that we can remember the atrocities that have happened in the past … and remember that you can’t allow these atrocities to overwhelm you,” said the muralist, Escondido artist Helen Segal. “You’ve got to find good and you can’t be overwhelmed by the evil.”
Segal, who was born and raised in South Africa, spoke in the temple’s Turk Family Plaza shortly before presenting her 30-foot-by-9-foot mural, called “Tree of Life,” along with an accompanying poem, to 250 assembled temple members.
The seed for the project was planted seven years ago, when Sonia Ancoli Israel — the daughter of Holocaust survivors and a world-renowned sleep research and UC San Diego professor — commissioned the $100,000 work as Beth El’s former president.
“Many synagogues around town have Holocaust memorials, we never did,” Israel said. “So I made that part of my portfolio and it took seven years for that to happen.”
Cheryl Rattner Price, head of the Butterfly Project, was contacted early on in the process. That program, started in San Diego, asks volunteers to paint ceramic butterflies for each of the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust. (So far, they’re at 225,000 and counting.) Segal’s mural incorporates 360 butterflies painted by congregation members.
“At first, we thought we would just put butterflies,” Israel said. “Then we decided we needed more than butterflies, because we wanted something that represented everyone who perished, not just the children. And (Price) brought Helen in, and Helen came up with this design.”
It took Segal just short of a year to plan and construct the mural, in which different branches of the tree comprise different materials and have different Holocaust symbolism.
The branch with wooden planks, for example, represents the railroad tracks that carried Jews to the death camps, Segal explained.
The one made of light blue tempered glass represents Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 that German Nazis torched temples, vandalized Jewish businesses and killed close to 100 Jewish people, setting the Holocaust into motion..
The central branch represents fire and has an oven door.
“I chose this particular tile that has the feeling of melting and burning and fire,” Segal said.
Not every branch has Holocaust symbolism. The green one, Segal said, represents rebirth.
“It means there’s always light at the end of the tunnel and you don’t want to live in a state of hate,” she said. “So, in light of the fact that this horrible thing has just happened, we still have to find ways to be better human beings.”