The Florida Holocaust Museum’s mission is to honor the memory of the millions of innocent men, women and children who suffered or died in the Holocaust. The Museum is dedicated to teaching the members of all races and cultures the inherent worth and dignity of human life in order to prevent future genocides. The importance of this work has become apparent with the recent antisemitic vandalism of the Museum, which you can read more about here on 10 Tampa Bay’s website. They are focused on carrying out this important work by connecting individuals visiting the museum with individual stories from the Holocaust, and they are finding new, innovative and engaging portals to do just that. Before we dive into their futuristic efforts to engage visitors with the story of the Holocaust, let’s look back at a little over a year ago when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.
The Florida Holocaust Museum shut their doors to the public on March 15, 2020. They were currently displaying their Beaches, Benches, and Boycotts exhibit about the Civil Rights Movement in Tampa Bay, not realizing just how relevant that exhibit would become later in the year when Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation following the murder of George Floyd. Like many other organizations, they had to pivot to virtual offerings to be able to continue their mission of educating the public on the Holocaust. Thankfully, the Museum was already pivoting in that direction, seeing it as the best way to engage their guests as our society began to favor the digital realm more and more, and were able to offer Beaches, Benches and Boycotts along with their permanent Holocaust exhibition as virtual tours.
They started integrating digital elements into their exhibits to better engage their guests in 2018 with their “The Last Goodbye” exhibit, an award-winning virtual reality film created by the USC Shoah Foundation that features survivor Pinchas Gutter’s visit to the site of the Nazi death camp Majdanek in Poland. The innovative and fully immersive experience enables viewers to virtually visit the site with Gutter as he travels through the railway car, gas chamber, shower room and barracks of Majdanek seven decades after he was detained there during the Holocaust. The Florida Holocaust Museum will be partnering with the USC Shoah Foundation again for a future exhibition that will allow visitors to interact with Holocaust survivors directly using AI and virtual reality technology. Recordings of the Holocaust survivors are happening now, so stay tuned to the Museums website to find more information on when this exhibit will be available.
While The Florida Holocaust Museum was already transitioning to virtual offerings before the pandemic, many of their volunteer docents were still very uncomfortable with using technology to give virtual tours. But, as many others found themselves having to do last year, the docents stepped up to the challenge of becoming tech gurus, or at least enough so to perform tours and other events virtually. Above you can see volunteer and Holocaust survivor Mary Wygodski doing a virtual presentation to students and faculty at St. Petersburg College. Below, you can also see a photo from one of their popular virtual events last year, Survivor Chanukah.
In addition to their virtual offerings, The Florida Holocaust Museum wanted to find ways to continue to engage communities that might not have access to technology. So they launched “Beautiful Questions: The Art of Samuel Bak,” an outdoor exhibition on display on the exterior of the museum featuring works of art by Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak. Bak’s work focuses on finding hope in times of despair, a very relevant topic during a worldwide pandemic that at the time had taken over 186,000 lives in our country alone. You can see photos of the outdoor exhibit below. If you were unable to attend the exhibit but would still like to see Bak’s work, keep an eye out for the announcement of the larger, indoor exhibit of his work coming to the Museum later this year.
In addition to the exhibit of Bak’s work, another unique way the Museum will be telling the story of the Holocaust this year is through fashion, in an exhibit called “Stitching History From The Holocaust.” This exhibit is tells the story of Paul and Hedy Strnad (pictured below), two inhabitants of Nazi Germany that attempted to escape by obtaining an affidavit from the United States. To provide evidence of their financial independence, they sent their cousin Alvin, who lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sketches of Hedwig’s clothing designs. Despite Alvin’s best efforts, the Strnad’s were unable to escape and were eventually murdered in the Holocaust. All that remains of their story are this letter and Hedwig’s sketches. The Jewish Museum Milwaukee recreated these dresses based off of the sketches in 1997, you can see photos of them on view at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee below and you will soon be able to see them in-person on view at The Florida Holocaust Museum.
As we mentioned before, The Florida Holocaust Museum was recently vandalized with antisemitic graffiti. The Museum chose to respond to this hateful act by hosting an event a week after the incident called Unite Against Hate, where they invited religious, civic, political and community leaders from across the political spectrum and various religions and backgrounds to unite together against hate. More than 200 people rallied outside the museum and more than 500 people joined online to stand up to these kinds of antisemitic acts, deeming them a stain on the memory of the more than 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
When you feel comfortable, we urge you to visit The Florida Holocaust Museum in-person. It is only through knowledge and understanding that we can defeat hate. The Museum recognizes that keeping their guests safe is their ethical responsibility, so they are currently only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10 am to 3 pm. Guests are required to pre-buy their tickets online to allow enough room for proper social distancing. As the vaccine becomes more widely available and herd immunity is achieved, the Museum is planning to expand their operations to allow more visitors to attend until they can open back up fully, which they plan to do in July 2021.