Humble resident Alexander Pollak was eating lunch with his wife in King’s Harbor last year when the view out the window caught his eye.
Pollak, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor, realized that the land along Lake Houston was surprisingly similar to the view from the Jasenovac concentration camp complex in Croatia (Bosnia), where his father and hundreds of thousands of others were killed in the 1940s.
“The atrocities that happened there were actually on the banks of the river, Sava, where I was born,” Pollak said.
Today, the King’s Harbor site that Pollak noticed is the future home of Holocaust Garden of Remembrance: Lessons from Jasenovac.
He and other area residents want the memorial garden to honor those lost in the Holocaust, and in particular, the 20,000 children slaughtered at Jasenovac.
“It’s a place you just go and meditate,” Pollak said. “It’s a place where one hears one’s own soul.”
A critical message
The volunteers working on this memorial project are also regular participants in March of Remembrance Houston: Kingwood, which draws hundreds of marchers from across the area.
“It’s held to recognize and acknowledge what people went through in the Holocaust,” said memorial volunteer and march participant Christine Ege, adding that 6 million Jews – and a total of 11 million people altogether – were killed during the Holocaust.
This year’s April 18 Kingwood march will pass the memorial garden site. Similar marches are held in cities worldwide each year on International Holocaust Memorial Day in April.
Through their involvement in the Kingwood march, Ege and her husband, Stephen Ege, met Pollak and his wife, Mary Pollak.
The couples grew close and began to talk about the idea of creating some kind of local Holocaust memorial.
After Pollak identified the ideal site at Kings Harbor, the volunteers approached Midway, the developer of the mixed-use development.
Midway agreed to provide the land for the garden project at no cost.
“The garden is in support of all of those people who stand up and make a difference,” said Susan Lazar, senior property manager, from Midway’s Houston office. “So many people look the other way.”
Today, the memorial garden’s core volunteer team has grown and is organizing into committees to plan and implement the project from here.
“Then there will be a memorial rooted in the history of a local resident,” Ege said. “The lynchpin is Alex’s story and the loss of his parents. We’re using it as a point of entry to talk about how children suffered during the Holocaust.”
It wasn’t until he turned 80 in November 2013, when Pollak felt ready to start sharing his childhood experiences in Croatia.
In 1941, he said his father was taken away by the Croat Nazi Ustasha, and other family members were evicted from their home.
Their neighbor, Denise Joris, helped the family find an apartment where they could hide and helped them move to the Adriatic coast, where Italians were in control.
Pollak’s mother eventually was arrested by the German Nazis and later was killed.
Pollak said he and his sister were captured by the Italians and sent to the concentration camp on the island of Rab.
“The conditions were fair, but I became ill with malaria,” Pollak said.
The children were released by the Italians in 1943, but remained in fear for their lives.
Pollak was sent to his aunt in Romania in 1945 and immigrated to Israel in 1953 to serve with the military there.
“About 30 years ago I found that my father, Kalman Pollak, had perished in 1942 at the Jasenovac Croatia Concentration Camp,” Pollak writes in a short summary of his experiences.
“He had been murdered along with 700,000 – Serbs, Jews, Gypsies – including 20,000 children.
“In the face of this devastating news, I was determined to find a way to honor the memory of my father and the other victims of the Croatian Nazis (the Ustashi).”
Pollak began working in the petrochemical industry in 1968, and in 1975 he was assigned to a project in Channelview. He stayed in the Houston area, and decided to remain in Humble after his retirement in 1985.
Messages of hope
Now that the memorial garden project is under way, it’s Pollak’s hope that the garden’s underlying message will be the value of life and perseverance.
“This memorial garden will address life in the camps in long-term extreme situations that verge on death,” he writes. “At the same time, a thread of hope remains in the human strength of will, the power of friendship and sacrifice – hope for the future in the hardest living conditions imaginable.”
As for the lessons of Jasenovac, they are about consequences, he said, consequences to “indifference to ethnic hate, silence to horrors of the past, tolerance of anti-Semitism, ignorance of the suffering, famine and diseases of the oppressed.”
The memorial garden volunteers are thinking about conducting more research about Jasenovac and creating art panels that help tell the story of what took place there, possibly with QR codes that allow visitors to link to a website with more details.
“The whole thing being that we don’t want this to happen again,” Christine said. “We want people to recognize signs of genocide and to respect lives.”
Volunteers hope to dedicate the land in April.
They do not know yet, when the project will be completed.
Making a stand
They both speak to the importance of making a stand in the face of mass persecution, of doing what it takes to prevent another Holocaust.
It was a desire to commit to that kind of stand that led Theimer to coordinate this year’s march in Kingwood after hosting the area’s first march at Christ the King in 2014.
When he was asked to take a larger role in the 2015 event, Theimer was worried about the time commitment and his lack of skills as an organizer.
What convinced him to say yes was a book he read by the Rev. Jobst Bittner from Tubingen, Germany, who is the founder of the International Holocaust Memorial Day or Yom HaShoa movement.
“He wondered what would have happened if people had protested the Holocaust early on,” Theimer said. “That haunted me.”
Bittner was the guest speaker at a recent lunch in Kingwood to discuss the remembrance garden. His trip to Texas was funded by the March of Life.
In 2007, he started the March of Life movement, which encouraged the children and grandchildren of Nazis to walk along the routes of the Holocaust death marches to break the silence about what their relatives had done.
Since then, the march has spread to 14 nations and more than 100 cities with a message of remembrance and reconciliation. For more information , go to www.marchoflife.org.
The pastor travels to the United States about once a year to take speaking engagements about the March of Life and its American sister event, March of Remembrance.
Theimer doesn’t consider himself the type to speak out, but organizing Houston’s march with other local pastors could be good practice.
Last year’s march drew 200-300 people, and organizers hope to see even more this year.
“The survivors of the Holocaust are fading from history; there are relatively few survivors left,” he said.
“This is an opportunity for the next generation to remember and keep vigilant.”
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