As time passes and Holocaust survivors die, sharing their individual stories so people can relate on a personal level becomes more imperative.
This is the ultimate mission of the Florida Holocaust Museum (FHM) and the underlying reason why Erin Blankenship, the museum’s executive director, recently led a small group from St. Petersburg to Berlin.
The Centropa organization has invited representatives of the FHM to participate in its Summer Academy, which, according to its website, brings together more than 70 educators from more than 15 countries in 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 his team, that audience now includes St. Petersburg.
“They ask Holocaust educators from around the world to attend, and then this year they invited museum professionals, including us,” Blankenship said. “So that’s a special invitation we got.”
The FHM team, alongside counterparts from Houston, Poland, Greece and Israel, joined a large international group of educators to visit culturally significant sites in 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 East Berlin.
However, Blankenship explained that she and a colleague from the WFH had found time to visit places “that weren’t on the established schedule.” One of them was the infamous Gruenwald station, the main place for the deportation of Jews from Berlin by train to camps and ghettos in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.
“We did this because we were looking at sites associated with a particular person’s story,” Blankenship said. “It was just very special – because we didn’t necessarily think of it as this site, we just thought of it as this piece of these people’s stories.
“That’s what we always try to do here and teach here (at FHM) – look at the Holocaust through individual stories.”
Finding specific stories is at the heart of FHM’s mission. Just last week, Blankenship reported, the close-knit community of St. Pete held a funeral for one survivor while another died.
Soon, she says, we will all live in a world without Holocaust survivors. That’s why she believes that researching, preserving and sharing their individual stories is of the utmost importance.
Blankenship relayed a pleasant surprise that linked the museum in St. Petersburg to the famous Holocaust memorial in Berlin. She said while visiting an information center at the facility, ‘which was fine with me as they only focused on individual victim stories’, she came across the name of a family she recognized. .
“Which I was so excited to see because I currently don’t know anyone who 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 Bielski’s partisan resistance. The three Bielski brothers and the fate of the Jewish resistance were the focus of the 2008 film, Challenge.
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 exhibit.
While the historic piece is currently in North Carolina as part of a traveling FHM exhibit, Blankenship said the St. Petersburg museum first included it in a 2008 exhibit on warfighters. resistance.
“When that movie came out, I consulted him often about the story, and he loaned us artifacts for the exhibit and came to visit and talk to us,” Blankenship said. “So it was a treat to see his face in this exhibit because he’s since passed away.”
Another highlight of Blankenship was the presence of five Ukrainian professors.
She said that while Centropa Academy generally focuses on historical programming, the organization has set aside an afternoon for Ukrainian educators to describe what happened to each of them after the invasion of their country by the Russia. All, Blankenship said, were living in other parts of Europe at the time to escape the atrocities of war.
She said two of them were actively trying to get home, with one raising money to reopen his school. One was to bake pies and send them to Ukrainian soldiers fighting on the front lines.
“It was so important for all of us to hear these stories,” Blankenship said.
“And it’s also amazing that these people – who are going through this horrific and traumatic experience – are still so committed to teaching about the history of the Holocaust.”
Whether it’s tangible artifacts or ideas, Blankenship said she’s been keeping her eyes peeled for anything she can bring back with her to benefit St. Petersburg.
She said lightheartedly that her profession ruined any hope of a regular day at a museum and that her colleagues agreed with that sentiment. In addition to listening to the stories and reflecting on the art, Blankenship said she also reflects on the thought process of the curators when transmitting the piece.
“There are always things we learn from other museums and other organizations that teach history,” Blankenship said.
The FHM still highlights its Dimensions in testimony exhibition, inaugurated last fall. It uses ultra-high definition film with natural language technology to enable a conversational and interactive experience between Holocaust survivors and museum visitors. Blankenship said that fortunately the four survivors interviewed for Dimensions are still healthy and speak to groups. However, the exhibit ensures that conversations about their experiences will continue “for generations to come.”
Underpinning his point, Blankenship mentioned a small ongoing exhibit on the third floor of the museum, which details the life and escape of a survivor named Lisl Schick. Blankenship said Schick and other Jewish children were put on the Kindertransport to escape Vienna as the Nazis invaded the area.
With the help of his foster family, Schick survived with his brother in Britain. Blankenship said she was also one of the few children sent on the Kindertransport to find their parents. The FHM presents its history and several objects it has donated.
Blankenship said Schick, a regular FHM speaker, died a few weeks ago.
“And I just want to point that out because Lisl was very special,” Blankenship said. “So we’re just going to keep telling his story, and that’s one of the ways we do that.”
For more information on the Florida Holocaust Museum, visit the website here.