ST. PETERSBURG — Walter Loebenberg, a Holocaust survivor and the founder of St. Petersburg's Florida Holocaust Museum, died Tuesday at 94.
The terrors of the Nazis forced him to flee one country as a teen. But he found a home in another, where he met his lifelong love, started a family and eventually left a permanent mark on Florida's Sun Coast with his business sense, philanthropy and commitment to the notion that education can prevent history from repeating itself.
"Wally was a remarkable man," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who said Mr. Loebenberg was a donor and supporter. "This is a huge loss for the community."
"It's very poignant that Walter passed just one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day," said Michael Igel, board chair of The Florida Holocaust Museum. "It is because of people like Walter that we can be certain that those who suffered and died in the Holocaust will always be remembered."
Mr. Loebenberg was born in 1924 in Waechtersbach, Germany, a hamlet about 30 miles from Frankfurt known mostly for its ceramic factory, according to his museum biography. When the Nazis came to power, Loebenberg, a Jewish teen, was forced out of school and into apprenticeship at a bakery, where he was during Kristallnacht. The following year, Loebenberg went to New York.
Mr. Loebenberg returned to Europe years later, fighting in World War II for his adopted country in the Battle of the Bulge. He was drafted, said his daughter, Sandy Mermelstein, the senior educator at her father's museum. But Mr. Loebenberg would have happily enlisted, she said.
"I can assure you," she said, "he wanted to go back and he wanted to help liberate Europe from the Nazis."
His performance in war earned him a Bronze Star, awarded to him by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Mr. Loebenberg’s return stateside brought him to Chicago, where he romanced friend and fellow German refugee, Edith Lowengard. The pair married in 1948 and eventually settled in St. Petersburg, where they opened meat stores and Mr. Loebenberg managed hospitals.
He founded the first iteration of the museum in 1992 at the Jewish Community Center of Pinellas County in Madeira Beach, the focal point of the exhibit being an original boxcar of the type the Nazis had used to transport people to concentration camps. The museum quickly outgrew its quarters and moved in 1998 to is current location — on the corner of First Avenue S and Fifth Street in downtown St. Petersburg.
The construction of the museum was personal: Not everyone in Mr. Loebenberg’s family was able to flee. He lost four uncles and two aunts in the Holocaust. And it was part of a promise he and Edith made early in their marriage.
"If they ever made it, they would give back to the community," Mermelstein recalled the promise. "They were very grateful to America for the opportunities that it granted them. They did not wallow in their history."
The couple remained committed to philanthropy, giving to organizations of every fashion, including those that sought to improve the lives of children and animals, and those that fought blindness and hunger. They gave money to the arts and were generous with their wisdom.
"He was a go-to guy," his daughter said.
Among family, Mr. Loebenberg was "mischievous" and remained, even in his old age, young at heart, his daughter said.
Even as lymphoma and dementia took hold, Mermelstein said, he'd still have pillow fights. He had one with a caretaker six days before his death.
He loved to travel, and Mr. Loebenberg and his wife made it to all the continents but Antarctica.
He died in his sleep in his home surrounded by family.
"I'm proud to be his son and I'm proud to be a part of his family, and the heritage that he's left," said his son and Mermelstein's brother, David Loebenberg. "I'm also proud to be a part of the community."
Mr. Loebenberg is survived by his three children, eight grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Three more are expected this spring, Mermelstein said.
A memorial service will be held at the Florida Holocaust Museum, though the date has not been announced. Mr. Loebenberg's family requested that, in lieu of flowers, remembrances should be made to museum.
Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.
Correction: The original boxcar at the Florida Holocaust museum is of the type the Nazis used to transport prisoners to concentration camps during World War II. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated who operated the boxcar.