An eternal memorial: Genocide victims remembered by sculpture at Sonoma State

Arthur Salm was arrested two days after Kristallnacht shattered his life in Germany. He was imprisoned for four weeks in Dachau — and later told his wife, Erna, to “never ask what happened in there.”

The couple fled to Amsterdam and went into hiding, where they had their first child. They received visas to go to the United States one year later. They settled in Chicago and had three more children.

Their son, David Salm, on March 29 will dedicate a Holocaust and genocide memorial at Sonoma State University in their honor.

“I believe they’d be overwhelmed, enormously gratified, humble and proud,” said Salm, of Santa Rosa.

The Erna and Arthur Salm Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove was inspired by a lecture series on the Rohnert Park campus that was started 26 years ago as a way for Holocaust survivors to share their stories with Sonoma State students.

It eventually grew to encompass survivors of many other genocides. One day, Elaine Leeder, the school’s dean of social sciences, asked Salm: Could there be a marker on campus more permanent than a guest lecturer?

Jann Nunn is a sculpture professor at Sonoma State who designed the memorial.

Today, three years later, Salm and various campus organizations and departments have raised about $100,000 for a permanent outdoor memorial.

The sculpture seeks to remember past and present genocides, while also serving as a symbol of communal and global commitments to prevent future crimes against humanity. 

“It’s an amazing thing to have a memorial acknowledging all genocides,” said Mathilde Mukantabana, whose family was killed in 1994 in Rwanda. “There is no hierarchy when it comes to genocide.”

The monument bisects a highly traveled pathway that connects one side of campus to another. The placement was deliberate, said Jann Nunn, a professor of sculpture at Sonoma State and the sculptor for the memorial.

It is unavoidable for anyone traveling the path.

“What Jann wanted to illustrate is how so many of us go on with our daily lives oblivious to the pain around us,” Salm said. “Unless we have the desire to take notice and take action, genocide will continue. But we have it in our power to stop it.

Above, a scale model of the memorial, which will bisect a highly traveled path on campus. Below, one of nearly 400 memorial bricks that will make up the railroad ties.

The sculpture consists of two railroad tracks that emerge from the grass and cross an asphalt footpath. The 40-foot-long tracks then narrow at the base of a translucent 10-foot-tall glass tower made from 5,000 pieces of hand-cut laminated glass.

Nunn said glass is “an unlikely material for an outdoor installation, but I felt I needed the sculpture to have something that was very fragile.

The base of the glass tower is engraved with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

The glass tower will be illuminated by sunlight during the day and artificial internal lights at night.

“I always want a light to shine on it. I never want it to be in the darkness,” Nunn said.

The railroad ties are made of memorial bricks, which are laser-inscribed with the personal remembrances of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides, as well as the relatives and friends of the victims.

So far, 232 memorial bricks have been purchased by people in many different states, including North Carolina and Nebraska, as well as Ontario, Canada. There are still 147 memorial bricks available to be engraved.

Robert Arakel of Davis purchased a brick in memory of his grandmother and great aunt, both killed in the Armenian genocide.

He doesn’t know exactly what happened to his relatives. There are no records even of their births, much less their deaths. He believes they were gunned down on the steps of a church sometime between 1915 and 1917.

“There is no record that these two women were even alive, and there is no stone, no marker for their death,” Arakel said. “Now, I’ll have both of their names exist on this planet. Someone will know they did exist.”

A dedication ceremony is planned for March 29. The ceremony will honor a number of cultures with Native American and Yiddish music and Cambodian and Rwandan dance groups.

It also will bring together many victims of genocide: Jews, Armenians, Cambodians, Native Americans and Rwandans.

Mukantabana, a history professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, is eager to attend the dedication ceremony. For her, it will be a “pilgrimage” to her past.

Her mother, father and five brothers and sisters were killed in 1994 in the Rwandan genocide.

At the time, she was working toward her second graduate degree, in social work, at California State University Sacramento.

Though she came to California intending to return to Rwanda, she had no one to return to after completing her studies. She also lost nearly 70 members of her extended family.

In 1994, she established a nonprofit, Friends of Rwanda Association, that helps support and empower survivors of the genocide. She also created a social work program at the National University of Rwanda in Butare, in southern Rwanda. She returns each summer to teach.

Mukantabana and her surviving sister, who lives in Toronto, purchased a brick in memory of their parents and siblings.

Mukantabana believes that the sculpture will provide “a place to go to think about my family, and to feel that sense of connectedness to the rest of the world,” she said. “For me, that is very important.”

Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove dedication is from 3 to 5 p.m. March 29 on the Sonoma State University campus. A reception at the campus commons will follow. The lakeside program is free and open to the public. To purchase a memorial brick, contact Sophia LaRosa at (707) 664-3221 or


Stacey Palevsky