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‘A story for everyone:’ St. Pete commemorates the Holocaust

Mark Parker

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The Florida Holocaust Museum, at 55 5th Street S., is providing a full day of events in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Photo provided.

Across the world Thursday, Holocaust survivors, their descendants and supporters united in solemn solidarity to honor Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.

St. Petersburg’s Florida Holocaust Museum (FHM), one of just three in the nation fully accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (the other two are in Washington, D.C. and Houston), is honoring Yom HaShoah by providing a full day of special events. The FHM offers free admission until 7:30 p.m. today, in-person readings and an evening Holocaust survivor testimony and candle lighting service.

Reading the names of Jewish men, women and children killed in the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the race during World War II is a symbolic yet deeply personal way to remember the victims – many without a proper burial site. The FHM is streaming the reading of names on its Facebook page throughout the entirety of the day.

“When you think about the number of people who were murdered in the Holocaust or the number of Jewish victims – which is six million – it almost becomes intangible because it’s such a large number,” explained Erin Blankenship, interim executive director for The Florida Holocaust Museum.

“When we can individualize the victims, it reminds us that this person was not just a number.”

The millions of victims were people with hopes, dreams and human dignity, and reciting their names provides an opportunity to re-establish their identity.

“The other part of that is if it’s not for us to say their names, who will?” added Blankenship. “Because for some victims of the Holocaust, their entire family was wiped out, and there’s no one left to say their names.”

The St. Petersburg museum, one of the largest of its kind in the country, was founded in 1992 by businessman and philanthropist Walter P. Loebenberg. He escaped from Germany in 1939 and promptly enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight the Nazis in WWII. In 1994, Loebenberg was instrumental in advancing legislation that mandates Holocaust education in Florida public schools, making the state one of the first to adopt the curriculum.

Blankenship said the mission of the FHM, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, is more critical than ever.

“One could argue that it’s never been as important as it is now,” she said. “We’re 80 years past the end of World War II, and that means our survivors are leaving this earth.”

Through educational programs based on original artifacts, archival documents and artwork, the museum strives to translate the shocking statistics of genocide into individual stories. Blankenship said that as the decades pass by, the world must remember lessons taught by the survivors.

She said the most critical message is the danger of unchecked hate.

“When people are just bystanders and do not speak out against it,” said Blankenship. “It’s inherent to the lessons of the Holocaust.”

An actual boxcar used to transport millions of Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust is on display at the FHM. File photo.

Blankenship noted a 40% increase in antisemitic hate crimes last year in Florida alone, a startling pattern seen throughout the U.S. and the globe.

“We need to have empathy with one another,” she said. “And that’s another great lesson that the Holocaust teaches people.”

One of the ways museum officials hope to impart that empathy is through survivor testimonies and relaying their stories. She said the FHM focuses on education – and studies show that when survivor testimony is part of Holocaust education, those people are more likely to empathize with others groups and speak out against injustice.

Whether through exhibitions, public programs or virtual presentations, Blankenship stressed the importance of providing a person living today with a connection to someone who experienced the Holocaust.

“We believe it’s that one-on-one connection that can really make a difference,” she said. “Changing people’s lives and empowering people to make positive changes in their communities.”

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the FHM will host an in-person commemoration service featuring a candle lighting ceremony by Holocaust survivors and their children. Holocaust survivor Sylvia Richman, now in her late 80s, will also offer her personal story. As those that managed to survive and escape the horrors of Nazi Germany continue to age and pass away, Blankenship said she strongly encourages anyone offered the opportunity to speak with a survivor to seize the moment.

Blankenship added that each person has a story as unique as it is powerful.

She said there is not just a responsibility to share what hatred can cost humanity but also what small acts of kindness can mean to a person in a harrowing moment. She noted that some rescuers simply provided their Jewish neighbors with a meal, hid them for an hour or gave advance warning of Nazi patrols.

“It doesn’t take some big superhero,” said Blankenship. “It takes all of us committing small acts that can change people’s lives.

“This is not a Jewish story. This is a story for everyone.”

For more information on the Florida Holocaust Museum, visit the website here.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Jenieff watson

    April 29, 2022at4:34 pm

    Great and powerful event!

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