June 19, 2024

The Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids

Two teachers meet for lunch, and one asks, “So, where’s your Holocaust memorial?” The response was, “We don’t have one.” The first stated, “Why not?”

Steve and Linda Pestka, children of Holocaust survivor Henry Pestka, are siblings and lifelong residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Our father acted so normally; it was shocking to understand that he experienced something so horrific.”

Henry Pestka was born in 1919 in Poland. He lived an incredibly brave and storied life. After being captured by the Nazi army and held in concentration camps, he escaped Auschwitz, served in a Polish battalion, and fought with the French Armed Forces. Following the war, Henry recalled a friend of his father’s residing in Grand Rapids. Ultimately, that is where he settled, met, and married his wife, Beatrice Bergman. Henry was fortunate to have escaped, as 6 million Jews perished in the camps during the Holocaust.

Henry Pestka passed away in 2013. Linda, his daughter, reflects, “When our father died, we allocated funds to the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids to be used for local Holocaust education but it never had the impact we were looking for, educating children and adults on antisemitism.”

With the increase in antisemitic dialogue rising across the country, Steve and Linda felt compelled to take action. So, when they crossed paths with Nicole Katzman, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids – and a celebrated artist in her own right, it didn’t take long to connect the dots. “We knew we needed to pursue something more permanent,” Linda said. But they weren’t sure just what yet.

The final piece to their puzzle was introduced to former President of Meijer Gardens, David Hooker. “We have over 700,000 eyes and a platform to share this important story,” David said, upon hearing their plan for seeking a safe and secure environment where an installation honoring their father and other Holocaust survivors would be revered and respected. Finally, the right place, the right story, and the right time had presented itself.

So, the search for artwork began. Steve and Linda were presented with the Jerusalem-born artist’s work, Ariel Schlesinger’s Ways to Say Goodbye. It is a beautiful piece created in 2019 that is constructed with just two components: a metal tree and large shards of glass. This intentionally minimalistic design is meant to communicate the sense of loss for the past, pride in the present, and hope for the future.

Steve and Linda purchased the artwork and together with the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids, provided funds to acquire the site and endow the sculpture to Meijer Gardens as a permanent exhibit.

Funds from this gift established The Henry Pestka Fund at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Foundation. The Fund is restricted to the care and maintenance of the sculpture and qualifies the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids to become a member of the Perennial Society.

Since its installation, Ways to Say Goodbye has become a catalyst for a Jewish education movement throughout West Michigan. From the dedication ceremony, with over 400 in attendance, to the high visibility due to the massive number of visitors annually, the sculpture has become an instrument of storytelling for generations to come. Steve spoke about the legacy of the artwork – and in turn, his family, saying, “It’s a sense of relief. We have a permanent testament that is not going to change and it’s only going to get better.” Legacy gifts to the Foundation, like the Pestka family gift, are gifts that will grow and bloom forever.

The community has been receptive to the message of this artwork. Television station WGVU-PBS became involved and created a documentary called L'Dor V'dor: An Eternal Tree. The film is based on the installation of Ways to Say Goodbye and the life and legacy of Henry Pestka. The film was nationally recognized and nominated for a NETA Award. In addition to the film, the Henry Pestka Art & Poetry Contest is now an annual competition hosted in partnership with WGVU-PBS and other community partners. Last year there were 85 student entries and their artwork was on display at Meijer Gardens for a month.

“What are human beings capable of? What compels them to do acts of hate?” Steve has asked this question time and time again as a three-term Kent County Commissioner, State Representative, and former Kent County Circuit Court Judge. “We don’t know what the ultimate outcome will be for a Holocaust memorial for the world, but at least we made this gesture.”

Too many people have been lost, but their stories are not. And for that, the Pestkas and the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids are thankful to Meijer Gardens and the Foundation for their willingness to partner in such a meaningful and ongoing way.

To see Ways to Say Goodbye, visit the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids website, Here you will learn more about the life and legacy of Henry Pestka and other local area Holocaust survivors.