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Florida Holocaust Museum: Bringing the Jewish Past to Future Generations

By Courtney Clark

The events of the past may often be considered with a sense of distance and disconnection. In Saint Petersburg, the Florida Holocaust Museum strives to make the history of the Holocaust both tangible and relevant. One of the largest Holocaust museums in the country, its goal is to not only educate its visitors on the history of the Holocaust, but to celebrate those who fought back and survived.

Philanthropist Walter P. Loebenberg was the visionary behind the Museum. In 1939, he escaped Germany and served in United States Army during the Second World War. Loebenberg conceived the idea of a memorial to those who had lost their lives. He gained support from both local businesspeople and renowned figures like Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List, and Elie Wiesel, who was named Honorary Chairman.

In 1992, the Museum opened its first exhibit in a rented space. Since then, the Museum has moved into a new building in downtown St. Petersburg. Its collections have grown to encompass a print and audio-visual library, a photographic archive, a repository for historic artifacts, and a research facility. It provides personal testimonies, documentation, and artifacts of individual narratives. Elizabeth Gelman, Executive Director at the Museum, says that the testimonies encourage visitors "to reflect on their own choices and individual responsibilities" in order to consider how their decisions can affect others.

Gelman says that the Museum is "dedicated to teaching the members of all races and cultures the inherent worth and dignity of human life." The Museum uses multimedia displays like the permanent exhibit History, Heritage and Hope, which features original artifacts, video, and photos to tell the story of the Holocaust from anti-semitism and pre-war life, through the rise of the Hitler Regime, to the atrocities of the concentration camps. More specifically, the museum is home to one of the few remaining boxcars, used by the Nazis to transport Jews (pictured above). This history is connected to present-day events: Lessons for Today educates visitors about current acts of genocide.

The Museum even goes further in its focus on human rights issues. A temporary display called This Light of Ours will focus on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The aim is to make connections across history and to emphasize "themes like tolerance and hope." This Light of Ours will show the work of activist photographers during that era, bringing the area vividly to life.

The Florida Holocaust Museum is committed to continually promoting knowledge of social issues, both past and current, in order to better society as a whole. Director Gelman says, "We must all be ready and able to challenge and educate those who promote hatred and intolerance."

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