In the spring of 1995, 50 years after Stephan Ross was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, his adopted home of Boston dedicated a memorial to honor the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, including almost all of Ross’s family.
Some 8,000 people gathered that day at the New England Holocaust Memorial. Its six striking glass towers, designed by architect Stanley Saitowitz, rise solemnly along the Freedom Trail, steps from Faneuil Hall. The late Elie Wiesel, renowned Holocaust scholar and survivor, was among those who spoke at the dedication.
As a young boy, Ross survived 10 Nazi labor and death camps. At liberation, the emaciated teen encountered a U.S. soldier who came down from his tank, shared his ration of food, and gave Ross a small 48-star American flag that the boy thought was a handkerchief.
That singular act of kindness gave Ross a renewed sense of hope for his future.
After the war, Ross arrived here as a refugee, pursued his education, married and raised a family in Newton, and devoted a career as a licensed psychologist for the city of Boston, where he worked with at-risk youth.
In the early 1990s, Ross spearheaded the effort to create the memorial and served as its founder. By his relentless determination, Ross persuaded key city leaders, notably then Boston Mayor Ray Flynn as well as the late William Carmen, a Salem native who served as founding chairman of the New England Holocaust Memorial Committee.
When Ross died in February at age 88, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the city and the world “lost a giant. Here’s a man who could have given up several times in his life and he didn’t.”
Images of Ross at the Holocaust memorial fill the screen in the opening scene of “Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross,” a riveting and inspiring documentary by Marblehead native Roger Lyons that will have its world television premiere on GBH 2 (formerly known as WGBH) at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 12.
The one-hour documentary was coproduced by Tony Bennis.
“This is the place. It is my father’s dream come true. A place where people can transport, learn, experience, pray, or pay tribute. It’s his physical legacy,” says Ross’s son Mike, as they emerge arm-in-arm through the memorial in the documentary.
Having the film air on GBH is a “dream come true” for Lyons, who began his career at the public television station, he said in a phone conversation.
The two first met 20 years ago, when Lyons filmed a short profile of Ross for a WBZ-TV feature on community heroes.
At the time, Holocaust denial was on the rise. Lyons was drawn to Ross’s passion and sincerity. “I realized this is a story that needed to be told,” Lyons said.
“It rang true for a Jewish kid growing up in Marblehead,” Lyons added, recalling a couple of his own childhood brushes with anti-Semitism.
At Hebrew school in the 1960s, he wasn’t exposed to the Holocaust. Ross “provided me with Holocaust education,” Lyons said.
For the next 15 years, Lyons followed Ross with a camera as he spoke at Yom HaShoah community programs and at new citizen swearing-in ceremonies.
In one of the film’s most powerful scenes – filmed a dozen years ago – Ross speaks with students at Dorchester’s Jeremiah E. Burke High School, who sit mesmerized by his words. “Don’t be quiet about racism. Speak up,” he implores the teens, many of whom are Black or Latino. Afterward, they surround him, eager to touch his arm, take selfies, and ask questions.
Throughout the film, viewers see Ross display the cherished small flag he was given by the American soldier. Ross spent decades trying to track him down.
That against-the-odds milestone unfolded in November 2012, at the Veterans Day memorial at the Massachusetts State House, when Ross and the family of Steve Sattler, 1st Lt. in the 191st Tank Battalion, met for the first time. Sattler, a Purple Heart recipient who lived in Michigan, had died in 1986.
With that tug-at-your-heart reunion, Lyons captures the dramatic touchpoint he needed to complete the film.
The film “made history more real and more personal,” said Sarah Evans, a history teacher at Jeremiah E. Burke High who showed an early version to her class three years ago. The next day, the school hosted a visit from Sattler’s daughter, Gwen Sattler Allanson, and Brenda Sattler, one of Steve Sattler’s granddaughters, when they were in Boston for a preview of the film.
“Many of the students were born outside of the U.S. and felt inspired by all Ross accomplished despite the adversities he faced,” said Evans, who is Jewish and grew up in Marblehead.
A quarter century after its dedication, the New England Holocaust Memorial is a city landmark. Each year, it attracts tens of thousands of students and visitors from around the world.
For Ross, it was a place he could mourn the loss of his parents and all but one of his siblings in the death camps, he says in the film. But his dream reached for a broader audience.
“It is vital to have a memorial to tell the world of all the atrocities and hopefully, the memorial will make a difference in this world.”