"From root and trunk, from bough and gate
To turn around the doom of fate
No simple task, repair the world
And thus the Tree of Life unfurled"
— Helen Segal
For 10 years, Sonia Ancoli Israel walked through the empty plaza at Congregation Beth El and imagined that someday a beautiful memorial would rise there to honor the 6 million Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust.
On Thursday, that wish came true when Israel, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, presided over the dedication of a large "Tree of Life" memorial and poem at the La Jolla synagogue. Thursday was Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. The occasion took on added significance as hate crimes against Jews — including a fatal shooting on Saturday at Chabad of Poway — are on the rise worldwide.
Congregation Beth El senior rabbi Ron Shulman said memorials like this one — designed by Escondido artist Helen Segal — help younger generations of Jews understand the sacrifices their ancestors made to provide them with the liberties and blessings they have today.
"The hidden hope for this memorial is that it recedes into the background while you are here to live, pray, learn and congregate," Shulman said. "It's always there as a backdrop for what we experienced, but because of that experience, you're living your life in the richest way."
The $100,000 memorial was spearheaded by Israel, a world-renowned sleep researcher and professor emeritus of psychiatry at UC San Diego. The Mission Hills resident has been attending services at Congregation Beth El with her husband, Andy, for more than 30 years.
Israel's late parents, Esther and Nissan Ancoli, were held in concentration camps in Lithuania during World War II. They survived, but much of their family was lost, either in the camps or shot in the streets. After the war, they served as members of the Brecha, a Jewish underground that worked to smuggle Jewish children to Palestine.
Twenty years ago, Israel chaired the committee to build a Holocaust memorial at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. And when she was appointed president of the board at Congregation Beth El seven years ago, she led the campaign to create a memorial there, as well.
"Things like what happened here are why it's so important that we always remember," Israel said, referring to the anti-Semitic attack in Poway that left one woman dead and three wounded. "We hope that it doesn't happen again, yet look at the world around us. We have to do what we can do to make people understand that we are just people."
The tree-shaped mural was designed and constructed by Segal, a glass and sculpture artist who collaborated on the concept with Cheryl Rattner Price, executive director and co-founder of The Butterfly Project.
Launched at San Diego Jewish Academy in 2006, the educational art project aims to create and mount 1.5 milllion hand-painted ceramic butterflies at locations around the world in honor of the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. So far, 227,000 butterflies have been mounted at schools, art installations and memorial sites in 16 countries.
Price, herself an accomplished ceramicist and sculptor, has been friends with Segal for more than a decade and they've worked together on several butterfly and Jewish cultural art projects at the Academy and the Torrey Hills Center in Carmel Valley. Price said Segal was the ideal choice for creating the memorial.
"Helen has the ability to sketch and visualize and fabricate better than any other artist I've met in 30 years," Price said.
Segal was born and raised in South Africa, the granddaughter of Jews who fled anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and England in the early 20th century. After earning a fine arts degree at Wits University in Johannesburg, she moved with her former husband to the U.S. in 1985 and settled in San Diego in 1987.
She started out as a painter, but transitioned into working with mosaics because piecing together the tiny bits of glass into puzzle-like designs helped her make order from the chaos of her home life. Her daughter, now 22, was born unable to crawl or speak and Segal said she found the mosaic work meditative. As she taught her daughter to talk through rhymes and song, she also became a poet. As part of her mural creation at Congregation Beth El, she also wrote the 30-line poem "Tree of Life" for a plaque that was also dedicated Thursday.
The 30-foot-by-9-foot mural is designed as a large, wide-branched tree made from a mix of materials including glass tiles, pounded metal, tempered glass, broken mirror, rocks, wood, Jerusalem stone and nearly 400 butterflies. She describes the mural's overall impact as a "gestalt" that pulls together the threads of the Holocaust in a cohesive, symbolic way that invites questions and discovery.
The broken glass represents Kristallnacht, the Nazi rampage in 1938 Germany that left thousands of Jewish-owned glass storefronts shattered. Rectangles of weathered wood resemble the railroad tracks that led to the concentration camps. Some branches look like chimneys and three-dimensional gas pipes. Squares of pounded metal represent the munitions factories where Jews were forced to work. There's a star of David, resembling the badges Jews were required to wear on their clothing.
The mural has 360 butterflies supplied by the Butterfly Project, all hand-painted by congregation members. There are also 36 glass butterflies created by congregation member Keith Wahl. One tree section is shaped like a shofar, the ram's horn used during Jewish holy day services. Another is shaped like a dove's wing, representing peace.
There's also what looks like an oven door in the trunk, a feature she added after a profoundly moving visit to Europe's Terezin and Mauthausen concentration camp memorials in 2017. At the base of the tree mural is a bed of 4 tons of river rocks, representing deep roots and stability.
One of the most important elements of the mural is use of green stone and glass to represent new life and the resiliency of the Jewish people.
"I hope it represents the light at the end of the tunnel," Segal said. "As Jews, if we're overly obsessed with the dark part of our history, we'd never be able to move beyond the ugly. That's what the green represents. It means growth and hope."
The memorial isn't quite finished. Money is still needed for a mural preservation fund that will be raised through small leaf sculptures that congregation members can dedicate to family members who survived, or were lost in, the Holocaust. At Thursday's service, 257 of these relatives' names were read aloud.
In her remarks to the audience Thursday, Israel said she hopes the memorial fulfills the mantra that future generations never forget the Holocaust.
"Now it is up to us, second generation, third generation, fourth, and now even fifth generation. Now it is up to all of us," she said.
The memorial is located in the Turk Family Plaza at Congregation Beth El, 8660 Gilman Drive in La Jolla.