ST. PETERSBURG — Edie Loebenberg, who cofounded the Florida Holocaust Museum and helped build it into one of the nation's premier monuments to the lessons of history, died Wednesday. She was 84.
She was a child when she and her family fled Germany before the war to escape anti-Semitism. Decades later, Mrs. Loebenberg narrated her experiences to the 15,000 students who came through the museum each year. The museum she and husband, Walter, founded around a 15-ton boxcar and a few posters now contributes to genocide education nationwide.
Friends remember her as a tiny, carefully dressed woman who liked an audience and knew how to get people laughing. She never lamented the pain she suffered as a child, even as she poured time and money into reminding future generations about discrimination and death camps.
"Another survivor is gone," said Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and an honorary chairman of the museum. "She served as an example — a creative and very dynamic example — of what can be done with memory, and not just to leave it to the books."
Born in 1926 as Edith Lowengard in Darmstadt, Germany, she saw her parents' comfortable lifestyle disappear with her childhood friends. She described that social climate to children who visited the museum at 55 Fifth St. S.
"When I was a little girl in Germany, my parents were very protective, and we didn't discuss things at the dinner table," she said in 1999. "Then one day I went to school and another little girl who had been my best friend threw a tomato at me. That's when I understood what was happening."
Family members immigrated to New York in 1938 and eventually settled in Chicago. In 1948, she married Walter Loebenberg, who fled Germany to the United States in 1939, then fought with the U.S. Army in World War II.
The couple settled in St. Petersburg and brought up three children. Mr. Loebenberg had several business ventures, from opening several meat stores to providing management services to hospitals across the country.
In the early 1990s, Walter Loebenberg managed to acquire an original boxcar from the Polish government that was once used to transport up to 120 people at a time to concentration camps. The Loebenbergs opened the Tampa Bay Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1992 in Madeira Beach.
The opening exhibit on Anne Frank drew 24,000 visitors. The museum moved to downtown St. Petersburg in 1998. The museum quickly became active in education, pushing successfully for mandatory Holocaust education in public schools. Staffers drew on local Holocaust survivors, including Mrs. Loebenberg, to talk to visiting students.
"She told the story in a matter-of-fact way," said Carolyn Bass, the museum's director. "Not the embellished story, but the story, and in a way that they could get it."
As Mrs. Loebenberg talked about good friends whose parents forbade them from playing with her, it was common to see children nodding their heads.
"Her talent was, she spoke very honestly," said Amy Epstein, the museum's first president. "If they were fifth-graders or 11th-graders, she spoke to that age so that they could understand what a frightening experience that was, even before Hitler started the actual war."
The Florida Holocaust Museum (the name the museum adopted in 1999) continued to diversify its content beyond the Holocaust to include information about places like Rwanda and Darfur. The museum also has had an exhibit on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. civil rights movement. It now draws about 100,000 visitors a year.
Despite the serious subject matter presented at the museum, Mrs. Loebenberg also had a penchant for jokes. She had an endless supply, and not all were as elegant as her attire.
"She was the live wire, with tons of personality," Bass said. "Whatever came into her head came out her mouth."
Though rendered functionally blind by macular degeneration, Mrs. Loebenberg "could still tell you if you had a spot on your shirt or had gained weight," Bass said.
Mrs. Loebenberg's absence reminds Bass of the dwindling numbers of Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories.
"The young ones are in their 80s," she said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.