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Academy in Germany inspires Holocaust Museum’s director

Mark Parker

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Erin Blankenship, executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum, found time away from the academy to visit Gruenwald Station, the primary location for deporting Berlin Jews by train to camps and ghettos in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. Photo provided.

As time marches on and Holocaust survivors pass away, sharing their individual stories so people can relate on a personal level becomes more imperative.

That’s the ultimate mission of the Florida Holocaust Museum (FHM) and the underlying reason that Erin Blankenship, the museum’s executive director, recently led a small group from St. Petersburg to Berlin.

The Centropa organization invited the FHM representatives to attend its Summer Academy, which, according to its website, brings together over 70 educators from more than 15 countries to culturally significant cities in Europe. Centropa was founded in Vienna and Budapest in 2000 to preserve Jewish memory in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Baltics and the former Soviet Union, and then disseminate the findings to a wide audience.

Thanks to Blankenship and her team, that audience now includes St. Petersburg.

“They ask Holocaust educators from all over the world to attend, and then this year, they invited some museum professionals, which included us,” said Blankenship. “So, it was a special invitation that we received.”

The FHM team, alongside counterparts from Houston, Poland, Greece and Israel, joined a large, international group of educators to tour culturally significant sites across Berlin and Europe. These included the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, a former Nazi concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany, and the Soviet War Memorial, built under Joseph Stalin in then-East Berlin.

However, Blankenship explained that she and an FMH colleague found time to visit places “not on the formulated schedule.” One of those was the infamous Gruenwald Station, the primary location for deporting Berlin Jews by train to camps and ghettos in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.

“We did so because we were looking at sites associated with a particular person’s history,” said Blankenship. “It was just very special – because we weren’t looking at it as this site necessarily, we were just looking at it as this piece to these individuals’ story.

“Which is what we always try to do here and teach here (at the FHM) – to look at the Holocaust through individual stories.”

The mission for the FHM and director Erin Blankenship is to convey the Holocaust experience through individual stories. Photo by Brian Brakebill.

Researching specific stories is at the heart of FHM’s mission. Just last week, Blankenship related, the tight-knit community in St. Pete held a funeral for a survivor while another passed away.

Soon, she said, we will all live in a world without Holocaust survivors. That is why she believes that researching, preserving and sharing their individual stories is of the utmost importance.

Blankenship relayed a pleasant surprise that bridged St. Petersburg’s museum with the prominent Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. She said that when visiting an information center at the institution, “which was right up my alley because they were just focusing on individual stories of victims,” she stumbled across the name of a family she recognized.

“Which I was so excited to see because I don’t currently know anybody that lives in Berlin,” she added.

The name she recognized was Jack Kagan, who grew up in what is now Belarus and fought the Nazis with the Bielski Partisan resistance. The three Bielski brothers and the Jewish resistance’s plight were the focus of the 2008 film, Defiance.

The Berlin memorial featured an image of a document belonging to Kagan, who was also an accomplished author, and the physical document is part of an FHM exhibition.

While the historical piece is currently in North Carolina as part of an FHM traveling exhibit, Blankenship said the St. Petersburg museum first included it in a 2008 exhibition about the resistance fighters.

“When that film came out, I consulted with him often about the history, and he lent us artifacts for the exhibit and came and visited and talked to us,” said Blankenship. “So, it was such a special treat to see his face in that exhibit because he has since passed.”

Another highlight for Blankenship was the presence of five Ukrainian teachers.

She said that while the Centropa Academy typically focuses on historical programming, the organization cleared an afternoon for the Ukrainian educators to describe what happened to each of them after Russia invaded their country. All of them, said Blankenship, were living in other parts of Europe at the time to escape the atrocities of war.

She relayed that two of them were actively trying to go home, with one raising money to reopen her school. One was baking pies and sending them to Ukrainian soldiers fighting on the front lines.

“It was just so important for all of us to hear those stories,” said Blankenship.

“And it’s also amazing that these people – who are going through this horrible, traumatic experience – are still so committed to teaching the history of the Holocaust.”

The entrance to Grunewald Station. Photo provided.

Whether tangible artifacts or ideas, Blankenship said she kept her eyes open for anything she could bring back with her to benefit St. Petersburg.

She lightheartedly said that her profession spoils any hopes of a regular day at a museum and that her colleagues agree with the sentiment. In addition to listening to the stories and reflecting on the art, Blankenship said she also ponders the curators’ thought process when conveying the piece.

“There’s always things that we pick up from other museums and other organizations that are teaching the history,” said Blankenship.

The FHM is still highlighting its Dimensions in Testimony exhibit, which opened last fall. It utilizes ultra-high definition film with natural language technology to allow a conversational and interactive experience between Holocaust survivors and the museum’s visitors. Blankenship said that fortunately, all four survivors interviewed for Dimensions are still healthy and speaking to groups. However, the exhibit ensures that conversations about their experiences will continue “for generations to come.”

Underlying her point, Blankenship mentioned a smaller ongoing exhibit on the museum’s third floor, which details the life and escape of a survivor named Lisl Schick. Blankenship said Schick and other Jewish children were placed on the Kindertransport to escape Vienna as the Nazis overtook the area.

With the help of her foster family, Schick survived with her brother in Great Britain. Blankenship said she was also one of the few kids sent away on the Kindertransport to reunite with their parents. The FHM showcases her story and several objects she donated.

Blankenship said Schick, a regular speaker at the FHM, passed away a few weeks ago.

“And I just want to point out that because Lisl was very special,” said Blankenship. “So, we’re just going to continue to tell her story, and this is one of the ways that we do that.”

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

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