Houston Chronicle, 

Construction is expected to begin later this year in Kingwood on the Holocaust Garden of Hope, an open-air museum commemorating the victims and survivors, as well as the Allied soldiers and ordinary Christians who became rescuers during that dark period.

For Rozalie Jerome, the executive director of the Holocaust Remembrance Association, the path leading to the planned memorial garden began in 2008 with a meeting in Germany with a descendant of a Nazi.

Jerome was working as the producer of “The Crossover,” a 30 minute-magazine-style TV show, when she was asked to interview German pastor Jobst Bittner, whose ministry focuses on bringing Christians and Jews together to work for peace. Bittner, whose own family participated in the horrors of the Holocaust, is the founder of the March of Life movement, which sponsors annual marches bringing together victims of the Holocaust with descendants of Nazis who wish to make amends for the past crimes of their family members.

“He said in his talk that if there was anyone Jewish in the room or descendants (of Holocaust victims) that he was sorry for what his country and his family did. And it was very stirring for me and emotional,” said Jerome, who currently serves as the Texas director of the national March of Remembrance organization. The first Texas march was held in Kingwood in 2012. St. Martha’s Catholic Church hosted the event and 35 interfaith church groups in the community participated.

Her work in organizing the marches several years ago had brought Jerome into contact with Alexander Pollak, a local resident and Holocaust survivor. Pollak, the first person to advocate for the construction of a Holocaust memorial in Kingwood, had a site in mind: on the banks of Lake Houston, just south of the Kings Harbor restaurant and commercial area. The view of the waterfront reminded him of the view from the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, where his father had died along with 20,000 child victims.

The HRA board members met Pollak and embraced his vision of building a memorial site dedicated to the memories of the children lost at Jasenovac, as well as other children impacted by the Holocaust, both victims and survivors.

Jerome agreed to helm the memorial project. “He was very insistent, and so we said, ‘OK, I do the marches. I don’t build gardens, but OK,’” Jerome recalled.

The association has since expanded on Pollak’s original vision, with plans to build an educational center that would include information on all Holocaust victims and survivors as well as the so-called “upstanders,” ordinary people who worked to rescue children and other would-be victims.

Plans take shape

Jerome said she shared the idea of building a memorial on the property, which was owned by King’s Harbor developer Midway, with a friend, Richard Rawson, one of the founders of Kingwood-based human resources consulting firm Insperity. Rawson connected Jerome with Midway chairman and CEO Bradley Freels, who agreed to donate the strip of waterfront land to the association for the Garden of Hope project. Then it was up to Jerome and volunteers to raise the money to turn the dream into reality.

“It took us five years to raise $1 million, because I’m not a professional fundraiser at all,” Jerome said. So far, the association has raised enough money to build the first two of eight planned pocket exhibits, which are expected to be completed by the end of this year. The group hopes to raise another $1.5 million to complete the whole project.

Groundbreaking is expected later this year, with Tellepsen Construction of Houston as the primary contractor. The project will be designed by Houston-based DG Studios, whose previous design work has included the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, NRG’s Houston Headquarters and Texas Children’s Hospital’s Jan & Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute.

Prominent Houston-based landscape architecture firm Lauren Griffith Associates will create the garden’s landscape. The company is well known for its design of Discovery Green, Barbara Bush Literary Plaza and Sesquicentennial Park. Lauren Griffin herself has a personal connection to the cause. Members of her husband’s family were victims of the Holocaust, and her mother-in-law was a survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Garden will use paintings, sculptures, music, physical structures and creative educational tools to tell the story of the Holocaust, from its origins in the spread of antisemitism through Nazi propaganda, to its aftermath. Because the site is susceptible to flooding — that entire area of Kingwood was inundated in the Hurricane Harvey flood of 2017 — the exhibits at the Garden of Hope will be constructed to be flood-resistant.

Christine Edge, a former director of the Holocaust Remembrance Association who currently serves as an adjunct adviser to the group, said despite the horrific nature of its subject matter, the garden’s lessons will be prepared in such a way as to be accessible to children.

“I think it’s really important for us as a community to educate our children that you have a choice. How do you behave when you see someone being made fun of, or when you see someone that’s different?” she said. “We have a moral obligation to treat people with honor and respect and kindness, or we’re never going to be a better society and what happened in the Holocaust can happen again.”

Edge said the project is designed to bring together Jews and non-Jews alike as a community united against hate. “I think it’s really important to educate the gentile community about what started the Holocaust and the issues of the heart that provoke prejudice, so that we can be responsible adults.”

Personal connections

Jerome’s work to educate people about the horrors of the Holocaust stems from her personal background as a daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Many members of her family were trapped in their native Hungary during the Nazi occupation. Non-Jewish friends helped hide both her parents and protected them from capture by the Nazis or the Germans’ Hungarian allies. Many of her family members, who were not so lucky to find sympathetic friends to help, were rounded up by the Nazis and transported to Auschwitz where they were murdered.

About 23 years ago, Jerome encouraged her Aunt Angi, who had survived but lost both her legs, to speak to an assemblage of students at Creekwood Middle School. “That was her first time that my aunt told her story publicly,” Jerome said.

Jerome’s daughter, Rachel Towns, then a seventh-grade student at Creekwood, was inspired by her great-aunt’s story of survival. Towns, now a doctor at Care for Women, an OB-GYN practice in Kingwood, currently serves as a director-at-large of the Holocaust Remembrance Association.

Jerome said this passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next keeps with the association’s goal of teaching about the past to ensure a more peaceful and just future.

“The purpose of the Holocaust Garden of Hope is to grow beauty from ashes and to let people know that such atrocities that happened during World War II and the whole of the Holocaust didn’t have to happen, if good people would’ve chosen to not be silent,” Jerome said.

Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer.