1. Opinion

Ernest Hooper: At 25, the Florida Holocaust Museum's mission is clearer, more positive and more important than ever

In some ways, working at the Florida Holocaust Museum might strike casual observers as the antithesis of working at Walt Disney World.

Museum volunteer Jim Locke noted a friend recently asked, with a full dose of sarcasm accentuating each word, "Are you still working at that happy place?"

The museum's staff, however, insists its work yields positives. In celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it's asking the community to not only visit the museum, but to quiz its employees about their drive.

The "Ask Me" campaign, launched earlier this year, has each staffer wearing buttons with that two-word invitation. When you take them up on it, you discover that there's a passion fueled by the hope each exhibit seeks to deliver, particularly to young students.

Of course, the museum's subject matter — a constant focus on divining lessons from the genocide Nazi Germany inflicted during World War II — doesn't lend itself to cotton candy moments. Eleven lanterns adorn the front of the museum in remembrance of those who died during the Holocaust: six are grouped together to represent the 6 million Jews who perished. The other five reflect the 5 million non-Jews.

I've always appreciated the museum's willingness to carry the torch for all who've suffered through genocide, discrimination and hatred. Over the years, I've even led discussions at the museum about Jim Crow and Jackie Robinson. When offered the opportunity to chronicle the outlooks of the employees, I welcomed the invitation.

The employees shared uplifting stories about how they're inspired by the mission of teaching visitors about the "worth and dignity of human life in order to prevent future genocides." Their aim is to make the world a better place.

"It's very important to get a message out that people matter," said Sandy Mermelstein, the museum's senior educator and the daughter of museum founder Walter Loebenberg. "Even when people are different from us, they don't matter any less.

"We use the lessons of the Holocaust to remind people that we're all people. When I take school kids around, one of the things I say to them is, 'We think of Nazis as monsters. They were not monsters. They were ordinary human beings that did monstrous things.' We all have the capacity for good and evil. The Holocaust is where evil leads."

Changing the world may seem like a lofty goal for a small group of committed souls working out of a 27,000-square-foot building in downtown St. Petersburg, but we shouldn't underestimate the potential of the provocative thoughts they plant with young and old alike.

In an age where hate mongers appear emboldened and a reckless disregard for life grows in multiple corners, we need someone looking to cultivate empathy and promote respect.

If you don't believe me, just ask them as they share the stories of hope from the survivors. If they can believe, we can believe. That's all I'm saying.

Erin Blankenship

40, curator, 16 years

Þ Erin Blankenship comes across to many as a stoic. The mother of two says matter-of-factly that she's not a "hugger." Public displays of emotion are uncommon in her daily routine.

But when I follow the instructions on the button and ask about her role as curator, it doesn't take long for her to get choked up. Along with overseeing exhibits, she maintains the museum's personal collection, which includes precious artifacts, photographs and documents donated by survivors or the families of survivors.

"It's one thing for these people to tell me their stories," said Blankenship, pausing to fight back tears. "But when they trust me and trust the museum not only with the retelling of that story ... but with these things that they held with them through this horrific experience, that's the most important thing.

"Working with survivors and families is the best thing I do."

Blankenship occasionally offers reassurances to the families that the mementos will be in good hands because some of the artifacts are family heirlooms: silver Kiddush cups or pieces of Judaic art or jewelry. In other instances, it's photos that no one can put a value on.

"Sometimes we provide survivors with copies of their photos so they can still share them and still have them in their home," Blankenship said. "We want to put a face on their stories. Sometimes seeing the face of someone who lived through it can make that personal connection with our visitors."

Interestingly, it was more than a Holocaust story that drew Blankenship to the museum in 2001. The art history major appreciated the museum's use of art, including an early exhibit by contemporary artist Judy Chicago, but she also cherished the fact the museum goes beyond the Holocaust to illuminate discrimination that has hit closer to home.

A Jackie Robinson exhibit back then boosted her interest.

"I loved the fact they were also thinking of more localized expressions of hate that we needed to address," said Blankenship, who holds an advanced degree in museum studies. "It wasn't just something that happened in Europe, but here in the United States, here in Florida, here in St. Petersburg.

"Segregation and discrimination occurred here and I thought it was fantastic that the museum was serving us by letting people know about it."

Frances Villarreal

52, finance, 7 years

Þ Ask Frances Villarreal for a response to her button, and she grows effusive in her praise.

"It is special in so many ways," Villarreal said. "It means a lot to us, it means a lot to me. You're in a place where you wear your heart on your sleeve.

"You meet all of these Holocaust survivors and you get attached to them. You hear their stories, you read their books and they're with you for the rest of your life. It's a wonderful, wonderful place to work at."

Villarreal actually had a choice between two positions when she sought a job in 2010, but she chose the Holocaust museum because of what it stood for and the opportunity to learn more about the Holocaust and genocide.

She's not Jewish, but as a Hispanic woman, the Holocaust's mission resonates.

"Facing now all the negativity towards Hispanics, it hits hard," Villarreal said. "So I can understand it in a lot of ways."

She's also one of the many employees who believe the museum's mission and its achievements as a place of education help trump the sadness surrounding the historic deaths chronicled on the walls. Villarreal says the hair raises on her arms every time the museum gets a new exhibit.

"It can be depressing, but it's also very powerful," Villarreal said. "As a staff, we all work together, we all stick together.

"This is where we want to be. This is where we want to come to work each day."

Cyndi Silverman

75, docent, 10 years

Þ Long before she worked as a docent at the Holocaust museum, instilling lessons in young students, Cyndi Silverman was a 6-year-old innocently asking about the murder of 6 million European Jews.

"I lived in New York City in the Bronx, and I remember going upstairs and asking my mother, 'Why do they have numbers tattooed on their arms?' " Silverman said. "That was very hard for a 6-year-old to understand."

Now she's the one helping students who tour the museum gain a grasp of how they should interpret one of history's most horrific chapters. The museum, however, primarily starts its educational focus with fifth-graders. Silverman said the lessons remain important today.

"The rhetoric of hate and bigotry has not been this prevalent since the '60s," said Silverman, convinced the museum's message is resonating with the kids. "The key word I try to make sure that they hear and understand is upstander. At the top of the triangle is the perpetrator, and then there's the bystander and the upstander.

"If all of sudden, somebody says you can't play with her because she's got dark hair and dark eyes, and you've been friends with that person, are you going to let that go? Or are you going to be an upstander? It's about helping them understand what happens when you allow intolerance to prevail and nobody says anything."

Silverman says it's amazing what kids can absorb, if it's told the right way.

Korri Krajicek

31, assistant to the executive director, secretary to the board, 3 years

Þ Korrri Krajicek is the Jewish great-granddaughter of a Nazi. Let me explain why that's not a misprint.

Krajicke, 31, grew up Protestant in upstate New York, and for a fifth-grade project tied to the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, she researched how the conflict impacted her grandparents and great-grandparents. She discovered her paternal grandfather served in the Pacific theater.

And her maternal great-grandfather, fluent in English and Scandinavian languages, worked as a linguist for the SS.

"I knew that my oma and her siblings came over from Germany in 1949," Krajicek said. "But I didn't know about the Nazi part."

Years later, while interning at the Holocaust museum in New York City, she watched footage and sound of Jews being liberated from Dachau. Watching them come together in prayer and hearing them recite the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism, so moved her she had to step out of the museum.

Her work here with Holocaust survivors who remain faithful deepened her interest in Judaism. Krajicek has always believed in the tactile experience of exhibits and its focus on art as a portal to education.

And she's living proof. This year, she converted thanks largely not to lessons learned in a synagogue, but experiences culled from Holocaust museums.

Scooter Bontly

64, facilities director preparator, 19 years

Þ Scooter Bontly's connection to the Florida Holocaust Museum dates back 22 years to when the museum maintained a temporary home at the Jewish Community Center in Madeira Beach. He concedes that back in 1995, he knew little about the Holocaust or the term genocide, but his initial work as a carpenter and contractor with the museum spurred his interest.

And it only heightened when he helped clean up the museum's railroad boxcar that was once used by the Nazis to transport Jews and other prisoners to places like Auschwitz and Treblinka.

"The first thing we decided to do was pressure-wash it," Bontly said. "At the end of pressure washing, it was drying and in the floor boards, I found a little girl's ring that's now on display downstairs.

"I still get chills just talking about it. If you had had any doubt that people were hauled away in those boxcars, families and children, you didn't anymore after we found that ring."

Ask Bontly about the button he wears, and he says after spending years as a master carpenter, he's investing in efforts to make the world a better place by helping teach the lessons of the Holocaust.

"I finally had a chance to do something ... to help people understand," said Bontly, a self-described owner of the gift of gab. "Still today, I have people say this never happened.

"I would love to take them into the vault so they could see the actual pictures, so they could see first-hand knowledge that it's not B.S. and the pictures couldn't have been faked."

Elizabeth Gelman

56, executive director, 4 years

Þ After visiting the African-American Museum in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Gelman and her daughter hopped in a cab driven by a 93-year-old African-American man. The driver, not knowing where Gelman worked, congratulated them on their tour of the new museum.

In the same breath, however, he encouraged them to tour the national capital's Holocaust museum because, "that museum shows what happens when people stop treating other people as people."

Gelman says the moment crystallized her mission as the executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum.

"We can talk about where it leads, we can talk about inhumane action and genocide, but that's what it comes down to: seeing and respecting everyone as human beings with the same rights and responsibilities."

While some see the Holocaust museum as a place of depression, Gelman, like so many of the employees I spoke to, embraces its mission as one fueled by uplifting hope and contagious empathy.

A partnership with the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation has produced empirical evidence that its lessons deliver empathetic impressions.

"If empathy is not a component of the history we're trying to teach, we might as well be teaching who's in Grant's Tomb," she said.

The hope comes from the survivors who share their stories at the museum with visitors. They remain remarkably optimistic about life, love and the world we share.

"They believe, even after all they've been through, we can have a better future," Gelman said.