The temperature took a sharp drop last week as International Holocaust Remembrance Day came to a close. Gloveless and wearing a torn puffy jacket and a shawl, Michelle, or “Sunshine” as she’s known to her friends, filled bags of trash at Baltimore’s Holocaust Memorial.
She quietly stuffed cans, needles, paper and waste into trash bags that she piled up against one of the trees at the 36-year-old memorial.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” Michelle said. “I have the utmost respect for the Jewish community. I don’t want this place disrespected.”
Michelle, who declined to give her last name, is homeless, a term she uses, and primarily stays in a tent on the grounds of a nearby church. She keeps coming back to make sure the memorial in the 500 block of Lombard Street is trash-free; it’s just something she does out of respect for the site. She didn’t realize Jan. 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“That’s so beautiful [that it’s Remembrance Day],” said Michelle, who is not Jewish and wears a sturdy wooden rosary given to her by a nun. “I mean, I mainly do this every day, every time I’m here. I clean up. I like to keep things neat and tidy.”
The memorial was proposed by the Baltimore Jewish Council in 1976 and the original monument, with grassy mounds, trees and deliberately blank blocks of concrete, was finished on the one-acre site in 1980, according to the website of sculptor Joseph Sheppard.
Sheppard was commissioned by Jean and Jack Luskin, of the local electronics and appliance chain, and Jean and Melvin Burger in 1987 to create a work for the memorial, and it was dedicated a year later.
“The sculpture represents the flame of death that offered the only escape from suffering for the Holocaust victims,” according to Sheppard’s website. “In the flame, he depicts their images particular to their tragedy; old and young, male and female, starved, broken and naked. After the next generation there will be no more living eyewitnesses to the tragedy.”
It was installed in commemoration of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi sympathizers attacked Jews and smashed the windows of their businesses in Germany in 1938.
The memorial, not the Sheppard statue, was redesigned in 1995 and rededicated in 1997, with train tracks, lampposts and massive blocks representing the way Jews were transported to concentration camps in rail cars.
“It’s very powerful in every way,” Michelle said of the train station and boxcar motif.
The rededication date on the plaque is Oct. 6, which has special significance to Michelle.
“It was my boyfriend’s birthday,” she said.
He has since died. “I come here every year and sit under the plaque in memory of him,” Michelle said.
While cleaning up, a few men she knows from the church approached and sat in the shadow of the memorial.
“They help me sometimes,” Michelle said. “They like keeping this area clean, too.”
In another life, Michelle was a dancer on The Block, Baltimore’s adult entertainment strip a short distance from the memorial. “I got too old and had to get out,” said Michelle, her clear blue eyes twinkling in the setting winter sun. “Sunshine was my dancer name, and now my friends call me that because I’m like a ray [of sunshine].”
She has children, but they’re estranged, she said. “I have grandchildren, too.”
As her hands began to turn purple — her gloves were stolen a few weeks ago — Michelle picked up the last of the trash at the site.
“Wow, that temperature really dropped,” she said to a group of Catholic volunteers, who handed her a pair of socks and checked in with two unhoused men. “Do you have any gloves or a new jacket?”
The volunteers moved on and Michelle went to the 7-Eleven on Market Place for a hot coffee. Despite the cold, she’ll return to make sure the city’s Holocaust Memorial is clean.
“They used to clean it up, but [the city] doesn’t come by anymore,” Michelle said. “Someone wrote graffiti on the plaque and it’s still there. Who does that?
“[Workers] will come and take pictures but that’s it. It’ll be up to me to clean it up again.”
J.M. Giordano is a Baltimore-based photojournalist and educator.