‘One Man’ helps college students think of millions

‘One Man’ helps college students think of millions

Judith Peck sculpture is rededicated at Ramapo College in its best possible light

Judith Peck stands next to her sculpture, “One Man in Memory of Six Million.”
Judith Peck stands next to her sculpture, “One Man in Memory of Six Million.”

A sculpture in memory of victims of the Holocaust that was conceived in Hungary more than half a century ago, was installed at Ramapo College of New Jersey in 1973, recast in bronze in 2011, and has stood watch in the school’s central courtyard for all those decades, has just been rededicated.

The need for the sculpture, “One Man in Memory of Six Million,” is as powerful as it ever has been.

The story begins in 1970. Just three years before the start of her successful career as a professor of art at Ramapo, Judith Peck — an author, dance teacher, storyteller, and sculptor — went to Budapest as part of a tour of Eastern Europe with her late husband, Dr. Harvey Peck, and their four young children.

They hoped to visit a synagogue there, as they had elsewhere, so the family went to a travel agency to ask for directions.

In response, the travel agent told the Pecks what had happened to her brother. The Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944. Soon afterward, Nazi officers accosted her brother in the street. “He was told to strip down naked,” the agent said, crying. “When they saw he was circumcised, they shot him on the spot.”

Then she made a request of the Pecks. “Please bring flowers to his grave,” she said.

The Pecks tried. They found the Jewish cemetery — but its gates were locked. “My family was overwhelmed with emotion,” Dr. Peck said. They all tossed the flowers they’d brought to lay on the grave over the cemetery fence. “We stood there solemnly, each saying our own individual prayer of mourning for a dead man we did not know, who’d died tragically at the hands of the Nazi regime,” she said. “He represented one man, one of six million men, women, and children who were incarcerated and systematically killed during the Holocaust simply because they were Jewish.”

“That heart-wrenching experience — of making the effort to pay our respects to a man whose sister couldn’t bear to — propelled me to engage in the year-long creation of ‘One Man in Memory of Six Million.’”

Back home in Mahwah, in the garage she used as a studio, Dr. Peck painstakingly carved the figure in big logs of styrofoam that were glued together. The finished sculpture was laminated with fiberglass and resin. Next, she sent it to a foundry in New York where it was cold-cast in bonded bronze. “I knew it would eventually go to Ramapo College, where I’d begun teaching art,” she said.

“My seven-foot-tall sculpted man symbolized those who were detained in concentration camps. His hands and feet were large in contrast to his emaciated body.

“I went to sleep both exhausted and pleased with my work when, suddenly, I woke up, acknowledging a very important detail I’d not considered— my ‘One Man in Memory of Six Million’ was naked,” she said. “Immediately, I got to work, creating a burlap dressing to cover him. While I had no photographs to reference, I crafted my best likeness to what a detainee in the camps would wear.

“I recall thinking that this sculpture will stand in a place where young students will pass by, stop, and view it.’

From left, Kim Lorber and her mother, Yvonne Mannheimer Lorber, are at the rededication.

“Covering his body with clothing was essential.”

In 1973, Dr. Peck’s “One Man in Memory of Six Million” was installed on Ramapo College’s campus.

Kim Lorber is a professor of social work at Ramapo. In 2010, Dr. Lorber’s mother, Yvonne Mannheimer Lorber, bought the sculpture as a tribute to the losses her own family suffered in the Holocaust. Then it was wrapped, shipped to China, and cast in bronze.

When it returned from China, Ms. Mannheimer Lorber donated it to Ramapo College, and it was returned to its position at the Grove — as its quad is called — in front of the Berrie Center.

In July 2022, Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz, who grew up in Montville, returned to his home state to become the director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo.

With a formal academic background in linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy, and history, Dr. Labendz has taught in both the United States and Europe. He has just completed his third semester at Ramapo College.

“Course offerings in the humanities are essential at a public liberal arts college,” Dr. Labendz said. “The administration at Ramapo College supports majors and minors in international affairs, transitional justice, human rights, and genocide studies.”

In the academic year 2021-22, Ramapo College’s president, Cindy Jebb, included the Gross Center among the nine organizations whose growth her administration planned to support. “This is so encouraging because many colleges are facing cuts in humanities,” Dr. Labendz said; he hopes to expand his staff thanks to the support of generous donors in and beyond the community.

“Knowledge of Jewish history is gaining importance because of the current environment,” he said. Jewish students told him that they felt safe on campus in the spring, but an incident of online antisemitism led to the rededication.

“These are polarizing times, and we want our students to see themselves and those with whom they have strong disagreements as fully human, drawing lessons from historical atrocities so as to guide a better future,” Dr. Labendz said.

Eleven months ago, sophomore Student Government Association members Riley Stein and Evelyn Voitsekhovich asked Dr. Labendz for help with a student-led initiative to rededicate Dr. Peck’s “One Man in Memory of Six Million” statue. The resulting bill “sought to educate the student body and create a campus culture of acceptance and empathy for those who’ve been victims of genocide, including those affected by the Holocaust,” Dr. Labendz said. “As student leaders, they felt a responsibility to enact change through legislation.”

The bill called for better lighting and signage for the Holocaust memorial. The SGA passed it unanimously.

Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz directs Ramapo’s Gross Center.

“The statue was rededicated on November 8, 2023,” Dr. Labendz said. “It was coincidental that we’d been planning it for a very long time and that the event took place on November 8, the day before we observed Kristallnacht.

The rededication included music by Ramapo College’s CantaNOVA singers, based on poems by Hungarian Jewish poet Hannah Szenes. Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan, who leads Ramapo’s Chabad, sang El Malei Rachamim. More than 100 members of the college’s faculty, administration and student body were there. “Partnering with Congregations Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah and Beth Tikvah in Wayne, we had an opportunity to commemorate Kristallnacht with substantive musical performances,” Dr. Labendz said.

“By rededicating Dr. Judith Peck’s memorial statue, designed in 1973, we hope, 50 years later, to create a foundation upon which to bond,” he continued. “The Talmud teaches us that saving one life is saving the entire world. This concept is reflected in the title of Judith Peck’s ‘One Man in Memory of Six Million’ statue and reminds us of our fundamental commitment to the worth of every person and to living wisely in a multicultural society.

“On campus, and beyond, it encourages us to build political and social networks grounded in an appreciation for our shared humanity.”

Shannon DeCicco, a senior at Ramapo, is the president of the SGA. “Both Riley and Evelyn each had great-grandparents and other members of their extended families who’d been affected by the atrocities of the Holocaust,” she said. “They believed it was time to literally and figuratively shine light on what the statue actually was in hopes of raising awareness among our student body and local community.”

“A public safety lighting survey on campus determined that there was insufficient lighting surrounding the statue,” Ms. Stein said. “Most students couldn’t read the sign describing the statue as a Holocaust Memorial. At an SGA meeting, and then on social media, derogatory comments were made about what was described as a creepy statue on campus.” That’s what led her and Ms. Voitsekhovich to write the bill.

By the end of the summer, Ramapo had installed better lighting and signs. “We worked with Ken Goldstein, the dean of the Contemporary Arts School, Gross Center Advisory Board members, and Dr. Judith Peck during multiple meetings to discuss how the lighting would be placed to illuminate the statue and determine the appropriate verbiage for the plaque,” Ms. Voitsekhovich said.

“At the ceremony, we lit six candles — for one of each million lives lost during the Holocaust, and a seventh candle signifying hope for the future,” Ms. DeCicco said. “We did not discuss the Israel-Hamas conflict at the rededication as we wanted to keep to our stated objective of remembering those who perished in the Holocaust.”

“Meeting Dr. Peck and learning how the statue originated was so inspiring,” Ms. Stein said. “Both Evelyn and I were somewhat star-struck when we met her.” Ms. Voitsekhovich agreed. “She was so genuine and visibly touched by our desire to rededicate the statue.”

Ms. Stein, Ms. Voitsekhovich, and Ms. DeCicco feel that the experience of writing the bill, passing the resolution, and seeing the newly illuminated statue shine has been an extremely uplifting educational opportunity.

“I am grateful to have been part of shedding light on a topic that is important both to Jewish students and the overall student body,” Ms. Stein said.

“I am grateful to see the beautiful results our initiative had,” Ms. Voitsekhovich added. “It’s been extremely motivating and inspiring to see what we can do as students on campus, as well as the impact we can have on the community around us. It was amazing to see this important cause come to fruition.”

“Seeing the statue in all its glory gave us each a chance to celebrate our accomplishments,” Ms. DeCicco said. “We recognize the tragedies of the Holocaust. The rededication is an example of just how much the students on our campus will do when something is wrong, and how hard they’ll work to make things right.”

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