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Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg works to educate, enlighten visitors

Artifacts and survivor testimony are part of a painful history.
Erin Blankenship (left), interim executive editor who has been with the Florida Holocaust Museum for 20 years; and Michael Egel, chairman of the board whose grandparents survived the Holocaust.
Erin Blankenship (left), interim executive editor who has been with the Florida Holocaust Museum for 20 years; and Michael Egel, chairman of the board whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. [ Photos: courtesy of Florida Holocaust Museum ]
Published Apr. 2

Times Correspondent

Holocaust Remembrance Day begins April 27 and ends April 28. Known as Yom HaShoah, it’s a time when Jewish people commemorate the six million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany during World War II. On April 28, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg is offering free admission to the museum.

Erin Blankenship, 45, is interim executive director of the museum, and Michael Igel, 41, is the museum board chairman. Igel’s grandparents survived the Holocaust. Both talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the museum and the Holocaust.

What can people expect to see at the Florida Holocaust Museum?

Erin: We have three floors of exhibitions. The first floor contains the history of the Holocaust (a permanent exhibition). We tell that history through the lens of survivor stories. These are stories of survivors who eventually settled in Florida, most of whom are in the Tampa Bay area. Stories are told through survivors’ testimony, artifacts, photos and documents. This is very important to us because we feel the biggest impact comes through those personal experiences that Holocaust survivors have had. ...

Then our second-floor changes. Right now, we have an art exhibition of works by artist Samuel Bak, a Holocaust survivor. We have Dimensions in Testimony: an interactive Holocaust survivor biography where we can have a conversation with a Holocaust survivor who is not physically here in the building.

The third floor is also a changing gallery. It’s more of a teaching gallery, so we have smaller exhibitions up here. When students come, if they don’t experience Dimensions in Testimony, they … can have a personal interaction with a survivor as part of their experience.

How do young people react when they visit the museum?

Erin: In the state of Florida, public schools are mandated to teach the Holocaust. For some of those teachers, a visit to the Florida Holocaust Museum is how they accomplish that mandate.

When we have student groups, at least 50 percent of students write letters back after their experience, especially if they’ve met with a survivor. They will write how much it impacted their lives or changed the way they think about their friendships, the people they know at school, or people they wouldn’t consider friends at school. It’s changed their perspective.

A visitor at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg examines a box car used by the Nazi's to transport Jews to the death camps.
A visitor at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg examines a box car used by the Nazi's to transport Jews to the death camps. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
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So they look at everybody in a new light?

Michael: They say they do, and I believe it. ... And that’s what we want; we want people to have some sort of impact, where they can kind of rethink the way they react to situations and rethink how they treat other people.

Michael, what was the experience of your grandparents?

Michael: It’s also a great personal example of the importance of the museum. … My grandparents were survivors and my great aunts and uncles, a couple of them, survived as well. They’re siblings of my grandfather. Everyone else did not (survive).

My grandparents were married the night Hitler invaded Poland (Sept. 1, 1939). ... And they were placed into a ghetto. They had an infant child, my aunt. … They were farmers, so my grandfather got — I guess a job is the best way to put it — teaching a high-ranking Nazi’s wife how to ride a horse. This person ... he was described by my grandfather as the personification of the devil (Josef Schwammberger, who died in prison in 2004). He was an evil, evil man who ultimately was found in Argentina in the ‘80s and brought back to Germany, tried and convicted.

The testimony of other survivors who testified at his trial affirmed everything my grandfather and grandmother had always said. He would just drive through the (Przemyśl) ghetto and indiscriminately shoot at people — that sort of thing, or throw babies against the wall — just a horrible, horrible person. His wife, on the other hand, saved my life. She made me exist. The husband told her that when she was done learning he was going to kill my grandfather, and she told him. She said, “You need to go.” She saved him. He took my grandmother into the forest, and then his brother and his father. She said, “Find a way out.’’

How did they escape the Nazis?

Michael: They were being shepherded between farms and barns by good people, good Samaritans, other farmers — not Jewish — who were doing what you’re supposed to do.

My grandfather and grandmother would tell me and my brother the story of these people to illustrate to us the goodness in people even in the worst of times. You get older and you think about how that frames your life. …

These people, the Gerulas, that was their name. They explained to us that they were hidden there, and they were bouncing back and forth between other farms. The Gerulas went to church for New Year’s. There were my grandparents, my grandfather’s brother and his father (who later died in hiding) and three other Jews, I’m not sure who they were. ... And the Gerulas came back and said, “There’s a lady who is telling everybody at church that we are hiding Jews. We just want you to be careful.’’ My grandfather got nervous and he said, “We don’t want you in trouble and we don’t want to be in trouble, so can we go somewhere else for the night?” So, they moved my family. … The next morning the police came. ... They ransacked the barn; they found the other three. They made them dig their own graves and killed them on the spot. Then, they arrested this husband and wife, these farmers, and they tortured them for six weeks. The Nazis said, “Where are these people?” They wouldn’t give them up, just a humble husband and wife, and they were executed for this.

For more information, go to thefhm.org.

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