By coincidence, it is International Holocaust Remembrance Day when I visit St. Petersburg’s Florida Holocaust Museum, a particularly poignant time to be here. This is always a somber, even painful experience, but an important one to undertake, akin to a pilgrimage to pay respect, but do the most important thing and that is to learn from history.
The Museum’s core exhibition, “History, Heritage and Hope” spans the first floor, crammed with original artifacts, video, and photos, that effectively convey what is almost impossible to share: not just the horror, but the process of genocide.
But my first stop is in a theater presenting a 20 minute film describing places and people who did their best to save Jews – in one small town in France, every single family harbored a Jewish family and when the Nazis came to round up Jews, the villagers, prodded by their Pastor, concealed them behind false walls, in haystacks, in the forest.
The Town’s Pastor who said it was the town’s duty to protect the Jews, was taken into custody and when he was released with a threat, he disappeared into underground. In another theater, you can watch testimonials of survivors (the two films alone would take two hours).
The first floor begins with a timeline that starts well before the decade leading up to Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, to 1313 BCE and the exodus from Egypt, the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Crusades, the first “Black Libel”, Jews being blamed for the Black Plague and the crucifixion of Christ by Pope Innocent III, centuries of persecution, exile, attempts at annihilation.
Then you follow the systematic process in which Jews who had lived in Germany for 1000 years, who were part of the fabric of society (“Ordinary People”), were systematically disenfranchised and ultimately dehumanized to the point where they could be rounded up like animals, beaten and shot point-blank range in the street.
In 1933, the year Adolph Hitler became Chancellor, Jews comprised of 60 percent of Germany’s merchants and shopkeepers, 16% of German lawyers, 11% of doctors. “Jews were respected.” It traces the propaganda campaign which turned them into vipers, “Then: Discrimination, Segregation & Isolation.”
It shows a key event: Herschel Feibel Grynszpan, angered by the forced deportation of parents, shot Ernst von Rath, the 3rd Secretary to German Embassy in Paris, Nov 7 , 1938. Herman Goebbels convinced Nazi leaders to use this as excuse for action against Jewish population. Kristalnacht was unleashed. Then the Jewish community was fined 1 billion rads ($400 million in 1938) for the damage to their property.
“World response: none.”
“Aktionen – Terror Unleashed:” In 1938-44, there were mobile killing squads. I look at a photo of a man with a rifle killing people and wonder how not one, but so many could have been recruited to do this without compunction or second thought.
Then the deportations to the East. “Ghettos served as temporary holding centers until the killing centers were built.”
A section, called “The Politics of Silence” addresses the lack of response by the United States – how many in the State Department were determined to keep out Jewish refugees. “By 1942, the US government had full knowledge of what was going on….The majority of Americans favored inaction.”
There is a really chilling section on “Media and Public Awareness” and America’s response, which boiled down to “silence”: “The Nazi government realized how effective friendly American press could be in downplaying – so cozied up.”
(Hitler based his strategy that he could implement his Final Solution on his belief that the world would not care if Jews were exterminated, and he was right)
A display traces the voyage of the ship, St. Louis, with its cargo of refugees fleeing the Nazis. On May 8 1939, there was a demonstration of 40,000 Cubans in Havana against Jewish immigration. On May 27, when the St Louis arrived, only 28 passengers were allowed to enter Cuba and the ship was turned away. On June 4, the ship came just offshore Miami. On June 6, the passengers were denied entry and the ship is turned back to Europe.
“Taking a Stand” offers a contrast to people who did do something: Resistance fighters like the Bielski Brothers; Shanghai, though occupied by Japan, allowed Jews in; the Hidden Children of Europe, where convents and Christian families harbored Jewish children and raised them as their own; Kindertransport and the Danish Rescue.
The section addressing the concentration camps is horrifying. There are disturbing photos and artifacts, including uniforms, from the camps.
Most impressive is the museum’s exhibit of an actual cattle car, Boxcar #113 069-5, that transported Jews crammed inside to the death camps – many died before even arrived.
“Boxcar #113 069-5, along with the rest of the boxcars, was the first place of death for many during the Holocaust. The bare freight cars often became a suffocation chamber for some of the people (100 or more at a time) who were squeezed into it. Those who survived the trip had to endure the journey under conditions of hunger and thirst, extreme overcrowding, and horrible sanitation. Many of those deported, especially the elderly and children died during the journey.”
“Lessons for Today” relates the Holocaust to genocides since then up to today: a ticking display at that moment showed 92,385,099 deaths since 1945.
On the second floor mezzanine (from which you can look down on the box car and an entire back wall of photos of Holocaust victims), an exhibit traces the stories of Greek Jews who joined the Partisans; and on the third floor, where there is a rotating collection, they are currently telling the story of a young boy in the Hitler Youth.
The first floor also has a section, Prayer & Medication, a small alcove that looks like the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you can inscribe a message and insert into the wall, which will be gathered and placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The Holocaust Museum serves properly as a conscience. It traces the process of how a society can be cultivated to inflict such horrors. You look at the photo of the mobile killing squad, assassinating people in the street, and you wonder how a person – how people in such numbers – could do such a thing. It is a terrifying look into the human soul.
One of the largest Holocaust museums in the country, The Florida Holocaust Museum came about because of St. Petersburg businessman and philanthropist Walter P. Loebenberg, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 and served in the United States Army during World War II. He brought together a group of local businessmen and community leaders, to create a living memorial to those who suffered and perished. Among the participating individuals were Survivors of the Holocaust and individuals who lost relatives, as well as those who had no personal investment, other than wanting to ensure that such atrocities could never again happen to any group of people.
The group enlisted the support of others in the community and were able to involve internationally renowned Holocaust scholars. Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s List, joined the Board of Advisors and Elie Wiesel was named Honorary Chairman of this Holocaust Center. The museum first opened in a small space in 1992.
The museum has been in this location since 1998. In January, 1999, the Museum officially changed its name to The Florida Holocaust Museum to reflect its mission.
The Museum played a critical role in shaping legislation that in 1994 made Florida one of the first states in the nation to mandate Holocaust education in the public schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
“All of the suffering and loss is meaningless if we do not understand what took place and act to insure that it will never happen again. We must challenge and educate those who promote hatred and intolerance. The vision of The Florida Holocaust Museum is a future in which peace and harmony are a reality in our neighborhoods, in our nation and in our world.”
“The Florida Holocaust Museum honors the memory of millions of innocent men, women and children who suffered or died in the Holocaust. The Museum is dedicated to teaching the members of all races and cultures the inherent worth and dignity of human life in order to prevent future genocides.”
Allocate at least three hours to visit the Florida Holocaust Museum. Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 5th Street S, Saint Petersburg, FL 33701, 727-820-0100, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.flholocaustmuseum.org.
(For more vacation planning information, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater: 8200 Bryan Dairy Road, Suite 200, Largo, FL 33777, 727-464-7200, 877-352-3224 www.visitstpeteclearwater.com.)
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