-Karen Chassin, St. Petersburg Foundation
For the board, staff and supporters of the Florida Holocaust Museum, it’s a daunting moment in time. Antisemitic incidents are on the rise locally and nationally, including vandalism and threats of violence. There has been an increasing number of comments by public figures equating trivial inconveniences and politized policy differences to the Holocaust. Outright Holocaust denial continues to find currency and new adherents via social media.
All of this underscores the importance of the organization’s mission to honor and commemorate those lost to the Holocaust and to affirm the dignity of all human life in order to prevent future genocides.
Museum board chair Mike Igel, grandson of Holocaust survivors, is a national voice on the topic of Holocaust education. Speaking recently about entertainer Whoopi Goldberg’s widely reported mischaracterization of the racial origins of the Nazis’ extermination of six million Jews, he remarked:
“We all need to acknowledge historical facts and take further action as upstanders to prevent Holocaust distortion. But there is one positive here. We are finally having this conversation on a national level, and my hope is the discourse will lead to a far greater understanding of the horrible atrocities the Jewish people have endured. Antisemitism is surging, and education is our weapon to fight it.”
The Florida Holocaust Museum is one of only three Holocaust museums in the nation to be fully accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (the other two are in Washington, D.C. and Houston). It’s a remarkable local resource, but its reach and stature are international in scope. It is recognized by the Florida Department of Education as a designated Holocaust learning site and its extensive range of curricula, teaching resources and trainings touch hundreds of thousands of Florida educators and students each year. In the first five weeks of 2022 alone, its programs reached 50,000 Florida children across 25 counties.
The museum was founded in 1992 by businessman and philanthropist Walter P. Loebenberg, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 and served in the United States Army during World War II. Loebenberg was instrumental in helping to advance the 1994 legislation that required that Holocaust education be included in the curricula of all Florida public schools, making Florida one of the first states to mandate Holocaust education.
The museum keeps a finger on the pulse of contemporary human rights violations that have the potential to escalate into violence. From exploring ethnic violence in places like Bosnia and Darfur, to lifting up the legacy of the Black Civil Rights Movement in St. Petersburg, the museum has been a consistent champion of those who challenge dangerous expressions of bigotry and the marginalization of specific groups.
“We are vigilant about looking at places in the world where people are making choices that threaten groups of people,” said Director of Education and Research Ursula Szczepinska. “Genocide begins with an idea and a misconception that leads to violence. We believe in disrupting these movements with education and attempting to create a safer world for everyone.”
Through its archival research the Florida Holocaust Museum continues to uncover the stories of Jewish victims and provide answers to survivors and their decedents.
“As technology improves and more historical records are digitized, we continue to learn about the history of that time,” said Szczepinska. “New facts emerge about things people have been waiting their whole lives to find out, and that continues to inspire new research. This history is still very much alive,” she added.
Mike Igel himself benefitted from recent Florida Holocaust Museum detective work, learning the identity of the Polish family that hid his Jewish grandparents from Nazi authorities. He is now in touch with the decedents of their protectors.
As the Museum marks its 30th year, there are plans to expand its research capacity, modernize its facilities and exhibition spaces, and strengthen the security of the organization’s facilities in the face of ongoing physical threats to the building and staff. On a positive note, the pandemic has helped the museum excel at distributing its content, curricula and exhibitions digitally, expanding its reach to hundreds of thousands of virtual followers who are partaking of the educational antidote to the seeds of future genocide.
In a recent online exchange, a frustrated museum supporter lamented the rise of antisemitism and Holocaust equivalency and denial and wondered aloud if the work was having impact. A 94-year-old Holocaust survivor weighed in: “Imagine how much worse it would be without your efforts.”