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Holocaust Museum to use $1M in state funding to expand reach

On Nov. 9, 1938, Lisl Schick looked out the front door of her home in Vienna and saw the Austrian capital in ruins. The Nazis had ravaged countless Jewish storefronts and synagogues overnight in an anti-Semitic rampage known as Kristallnacht. Schick, who was 10, looked up to her dad. He shook his head and said, "There's nothing I can do."

She lost much of her extended family to the Holocaust, but Schick, her parents and her brother were able to escape Austria before World War II broke out in 1939, eventually making it to the United States.

Her father may not have been able to do anything about violence against the Jews back then, but Schick, now 85 and living in Largo, sees herself as an agent of change by volunteering at the Florida Holocaust Museum and speaking to students about the horrors of the Holocaust, bullying and prejudice.

"Next to my family, there's nothing more important in my life right now than the Holocaust Museum and the contribution I can make," said Schick, at right. "If I can show the children the terrible consequences of hatred and bigotry, then I've made a dent."

In May, Gov. Rick Scott approved nearly $1 million for the museum — the most it has ever received from the state and at least $700,000 more than in recent years. Museum officials plan to use the money to update and expand the reach of their educational resources and Holocaust survivor testimonies.

"We will really be able to move to 21st century platforms," said executive director Elizabeth Gelman. "This is one of those causes that everyone wants, to create a better future for our society and educating our children and adults."

Florida is one of five states that mandate Holocaust education, Gelman noted. The museum provides schools across the state with free teacher training and trunks that hold artifacts, movies, documents and other items to accompany a Holocaust curriculum.

With an expanded budget, the museum will be able to support additional training, increase the number of trunks and digitize some of the trunks' contents. The institution plans to transition to a model with a larger emphasis on e-learning, which will make the materials more readily available to classrooms.

Gelman said the museum has more than 500 oral testimonies on audio and videocassettes, which it plans to digitize.

It is crucial for the museum to get as many testimonies as it can in the next couple of years. Florida has one of the largest populations of Holocaust survivors in the United States, but that group is dying out.

"Each year we're losing them, and we have a commitment to keep their stories alive and accessible," said Marty Borell, chairman of the museum's board of directors.

The museum also plans to further engage the community by hosting webinars if a major speaker comes to deliver a talk.

State funding for the museum in the past few years has hovered between $200,000 and $250,000 annually, accounting for about 12 to 15 percent of the museum's operating budget. The rest comes from memberships, ticket sales and donations.

With limited state funding, it was difficult for the museum to respond to constantly increasing demands for its educational resources, Gelman said.

"We had to cut back on the types of exhibits we could have here at the museum," she said. "We've had to let staff go."

In the past couple of years, the museum has made an effort to raise its profile among legislators, and Florida saw a budget surplus, so Borell expected a boost in funding. Such a dramatic increase was a welcome surprise.

"This takes a huge pressure off the museum," he said.

The museum appealed to legislators and the governor this year because of its potential as a tourist attraction, as one of the largest Holocaust museums in the country, said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who requested increased funding for the museum when putting together the budget. Additionally, when the governor and other legislators visited the museum this year, they were impressed.

"(We) saw firsthand the kind of contribution they're making to education on what the Holocaust meant," Latvala said. Scott's tour of the museum was the first time a sitting governor has visited the institution in its 21-year history.

Schick, the octogenarian volunteer, said children learn the most through hands-on education about the Holocaust, which is why it is important for the museum to grow.

"When they hear the story of one family, it becomes much more personal," she said. "It's one thing to read it in a book, and it's another to see an artifact."

Contact Lauren Carroll at lcarroll@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenFCarroll.

Holocaust Museum to use $1M in state funding to expand reach 06/04/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 5:19pm]

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