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How the Holocaust Museum secured the Elie Wiesel archive

Ashley Morales

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Officials with the Florida Holocaust Museum competed for months for the opportunity to become the permanent home of Elie Wiesel's collection of personal belongings. The new exhibit is projected to debut in 2025. Rendering provided.

Leaders and advocates of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Peterburg are celebrating a hard-fought win after an extensive and competitive selection process to become the permanent home of Elie Wiesel’s personal collection.

Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor and Nobel-prize-winning writer who authored nearly 60 books, including Night, a memoir based on his and his father’s experiences and the atrocities committed by German Nazis inside concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. Wiesel was also renowned for his political activism, advocating for victims of oppression around the globe throughout his adult life. 

Wiesel died in 2016, leaving behind a large collection of items inside his personal office and library. In 2022, the Florida Holocaust Museum received a request for proposal as the Elie Wiesel Foundation, led by Elie’s wife Marion Wiesel and son Elisha Wiesel, began looking for an institution to permanently house and display the extensive archive.

“Elie Wiesel is the pinnacle of the importance of the lessons of the Holocaust, that action is necessary and silence is unacceptable. Our whole mission at the museum is that concept,” said Michael Igel, Board Chairman of the Florida Holocaust Museum (FHM). “To have even the opportunity to potentially be chosen, my first thought was, ‘Wow, this opportunity has arisen and somebody thought of us.’”

Igel said no one at the FHM knew which other institutions were competing to house the archive, but they were aware there were “several other applicants,” presumably from around the world, and the process would be highly competitive. 

A quote from Elie Wiesel, painted on the wall near the current entry to the Florida Holocaust Museum. The museum will undergo extensive renovations in 2024 and 2025. Photo: Ashley Morales.

“My thought then became, ‘Okay, regardless of who the competition is, how can we distinguish ourselves?’ It’s really hard to do when you have no clue which other well-respected Holocaust museums are competing, but one thing we thought would distinguish us was the fact that we were already planning a full reconstruction. We thought that blank canvas might be appealing.”

The FHM was also bolstered by the fact that the Wiesel family has ties to St. Pete; Elie Wiesel taught for many years as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Eckerd College and cut the ribbon at the Florida Holocaust Museum’s downtown location opening in 1998.

“Throughout the process, one thing we said to each other was that we need to show we have an unmatched passion for this; that we are going to care more than anybody else possibly could. When I got the phone call [that the FHM had been chosen], they noted that our passion was immense. They saw that,” Igel said. “But at the end of the day, these are still the Wiesel family’s belongings. We knew that the feeling of entrusting an institution with those things was so important. Even as an accredited museum with such a history and experience with artifact maintenance, we still had to be the right place.”

Elie Wiesel (second from left) cut the ribbon at the opening of the Florida Holocaust Museum’s downtown location in 1998. Pictured alongside Wiesel are museum founders Walter and Edie Loebenberg and then-Museum President Amy Epstein (far right.) Photo provided.

Museum leaders made the announcement that the FHM had been chosen as the collection’s new home at its annual gala Feb. 3. A brand new exhibit, projected to debut in 2025, will house some of Elie Wiesel’s most prized and personal possessions, including his Nobel prize, unfinished manuscripts, artworks, photographs and documents.

“Even if it’s an everyday object, they’re things that are unique to him because he wrote them or he studied them. It includes recordings of interactions, possibly with world leaders. These are things that were meaningful to him that he kept,” said Carl Goodman, President and CEO of the Florida Holocaust Museum. “This collection will be something that scholars, educators, students and the general public will study and be inspired by. And this material wasn’t necessarily available to the public until now, until we’ll be able to make it available. That’s incredible.”

Wiesel’s expansive collection is still being inventoried, so FHM leaders still don’t know exactly what they’ll be getting. The FHM plans to recreate Wiesel’s personal office and library in full, offering visitors an immersive experience that will include digital elements and opportunities to interact with some of the contents. Goodman said the museum doesn’t want visitors to feel as though they’re learning about Wiesel from “behind a red rope”; the goal is to truly allow visitors to appreciate the scale and richness of the archive.

“We teach the lessons of the Holocaust through individualized stories. So while we’ll be showing the immense scale of who [Wiesel] was and the millions of people he educated and inspired, we are simultaneously showing you and teaching you that he was one person,” said Igel. “He was someone’s father and someone’s husband and someone’s child. We want to spark that flame so people think, ‘Wait a minute, I could do that. I can be an upstander.’”

“Upstander” is a term that has become ubiquitous in Holocaust education, defined as a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, as opposed to a bystander. As an upstander, Wiesel not only recounted harrowing and painful descriptions of Nazi violence but also spoke up on behalf of persecuted peoples throughout his life, cementing a legacy as a prolific and impassioned humanitarian.

Reflecting on one of Wiesel’s most famous quotes, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere,” Igel notes that the Nobel Laureate’s lessons are as poignant now as ever.

“All of us can and should relate to this. The way that he communicated made these lessons relevant and interesting, and emotional. I think he just was an utter master of that. It’s a great opportunity and an honor to be chosen to make sure his message and his legacy will live on.”

Elie Wiesel’s personal office and library, including previously unseen artifacts, will be recreated as an immersive exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum. Photo provided.

Igel and Goodman also credited accelerating development in the City of St. Petersburg and a reputation as a cultural hub as another reason why they believe the Florida Holocaust Museum was chosen to house Elie Wiesel’s personal collection.

“We fought hard for this, but one part we may not have had to do much convincing about is the explosive growth going on in St. Pete and the fact that sort of a cultural corridor has been formed – many places within walking distance – and we’re smack dab in the center of it,” Goodman said.

“This is a huge opportunity and victory for the City of St. Pete in and of itself, because this makes yet another museum a true international destination. That’s not an exaggeration. People will visit here and they will say, ‘I came to see the Dali, I came to the Rays and I came to the Wiesel Exhibition at the Florida Holocaust Museum. It’s going to be that significant,” said Igel. 

While the Wiesel Collection will be a cornerstone of the permanent exhibition at the FHM, the author’s items and his message will be woven throughout St. Pete. Documents from Wiesel’s library will be housed in special collections at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library on the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg Campus and will anchor USF’s new Elie Wiesel Center for Humanitarian Ethics. 

The FHM will also have enough artifacts to create a traveling exhibition, giving scholars and the public around the world an unprecedented opportunity to learn from the humanitarian’s life and work. However, the most enduring tribute to Wiesel will undoubtedly be his recreated-in-full office at the FHM.

“I’ll never forget when I got the phone call and they said, “You’ve been selected [to house the Elie Wiesel collection], and Mrs. Wiesel lit up when she saw the drawings [of the exhibit]. She herself is a Holocaust survivor and they are entrusting all of this to us,” said Igel. “The most important thing we do is honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, so for her to know at 93 years old, that she has a place that she can trust this, and we’re doing it in a way that lights her up – that’s what victory feels like.”

“Now the real hard work begins,” Goodman said, “and we’ve got to do this justice.”

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