Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg
By Jon Wilson
During World War II’s waning days, allied armies liberated Nazi concentration and extermination camps where millions of innocent Jewish men, women and children were enslaved, tortured and put to death. The scenes sickened troops.
“They found sights, sounds and stenches horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind,” said Col. William W. Quinn of the United States 7th Army, speaking of the Dachau camp.
Rather than purging memories of the butchery at these morbid sites, visionary people saw a chance to educate.
Worldwide, scores of museums, monuments, and various memories have been established to commemorate the Holocaust – its victims, its roots and its human costs.
One of three largest in the United States is the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, founded in 1989. The 27,000-square-foot museum commemorates the Holocaust’s Jewish victims and those of other genocides such as the Armenians and the Rwandans.
“This is a place of hope. It’s not simply a memorial. It is a living museum,” said Elizabeth Gelman, the museum’s executive director.
“When survivors speak of their experiences, they always say not to feel sorry for them. . . . I hope people can be as brave as our survivors have been and take a stand against injustice.”
There are about 13,500 objects in the museum’s collection overall. While some are featured in the main exhibition, some of the objects featured in the museum change and rotate depending on the other exhibitions on display.
Some of the more striking ones rest in the main exhibition, titled "History, Heritage and Hope." Original artifacts, photographs and videos tell about the origins of anti-Semitism, Hitler’s and the Nazis’ climb to power and the promulgation of anti-Jewish laws. Other victim groups also are featured in this section. About 400 testimonials from survivors and their liberators are stored.
A collection of photographs on the Museum’s wall showcases “everyday families doing everyday things” before the Nazis came to power, Gelman said.
She said such exposition ranks as one of the museum’s most important missions: to show that both the victims and victimizers “were everyday people like you and me.”
There are no graphic images on display. But some are both vivid and touching. One such is a rail car known as Boxcar 113 069-5.
“This is a rail car of the time period that was used to transport human beings from cities to death camps,” Gelman said.
Boxcars like this became suffocation chambers for people crowded inside. Others died from exposure or starvation.
During its transportation to the museum, a tiny object fell out of the boxcar. Carbon dating matched it to the Holocaust era. It was a small ring and appeared to have belonged to a child.
Gelman estimates that about 100 Holocaust survivors live in the Tampa Bay area.
Among them is Lisl Schick, who escaped Vienna, Austria when the Nazis took over. Before that, she witnessed Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, when she was 10 years old. It was a night of destruction by the Nazis, who rounded up an estimated 30,000 Jewish people. Later, the Nazis killed her grandparents and 20-25 other relatives, Schick told the Tampa Bay Times in 2008.
“Our only hope is that we have influenced our children and grandchildren and told them our story and made them feel involved, which fortunately my children are. They will have to continue. Otherwise, this will be history. And you know what happens to history? People forget. Some people will say it never happened. Yes, it did happen. I was there,” said Schick, who is a museum board member.
Programming and outreach to the general public, educators and students is ongoing. “We want to reach every corner of the state,” Gelman said. The museum helped create legislation in 1994 that made Florida one of the nation’s first states to require Holocaust education in schools.
The museum conducts educator workshops that include, in addition to Holocaust studies, such subjects as cyber-bullying. Numerous opportunities are available for students, who can even Skype with survivors.
The most popular resource: the “Teaching Trunks,” available to borrow for free. These are literal trunks containing books, videos, CDs, read-aloud lessons and picture books appropriate for each grade level through high school. Among subjects covered: creating community, beginning Holocaust studies, investigating human behavior and historical perspectives about the Holocaust.
Museum officials hope that experiencing the exhibitions will inspire visitors to talk about the museum and its message. Gelman articulated the ideal takeaway:
“You have been here and now you are witnesses. And now it’s your responsibility to tell this story.”