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New, expanded Holocaust museum renews mission to ‘break the cycle of hate’

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The St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum officially reopens to the public at 1 p.m. on November 2 with many more resources to continue its mission of rejecting hate, promoting understanding and inspiring change. After a 2.5-year, $21 million renovation and expansion, the museum offers a wide range of exhibits and educational tools to help achieve these goals.

Over the past few months, museum staff and volunteers have prepared for the day as construction crews put the finishing touches on the structure. The design of the building and the entrance strike a balance that is both solemn and welcoming.

With 36,000 square feet of space, the museum already books school outings and group tours. These opportunities to educate students and adults are essential to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust do not fade from memory.

The museum’s reopening comes at an important time, said Frances Levine, acting chief executive.

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“I think we opened this museum at a really critical time when rhetoric and conspiracy theories got us in so much trouble,” said Levine, a PhD in anthropology and former CEO of the Missouri Historical Society. “I think we couldn’t have opened at a better time in our history.”

An asset to the community

The new Holocaust museum will take on the crucial task of educating and fighting hate, said Carol Staenberg, who led the museum’s fundraising campaign.

Photo by Bill Motchan

“The previous museum was pretty outdated,” Staenberg said. “And with the rise of anti-Semitism all over the world, we have built such a beautiful and impactful place on the outside, but also on the inside. We have raised a lot of money for the construction of the capital, then we started talking about what was going on inside and what people would get out of visiting the museum, that was my motivation and why I really thought it was important to be a part of this project.

Staenberg says that for our region — and our community — the chance to have a safe environment like the museum to learn about the Holocaust and infuse those lessons into our daily lives, will be both crucial and impactful.

“It’ll be big enough that students don’t have to get back on the bus and go home,” Staenberg continued. “They can actually sit down and debrief with their teacher, maybe with a survivor, and be able to have conversations.”

Importance of Holocaust Awareness

Holocaust education efforts are particularly important based on studies that track awareness. A September 2020 survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany revealed a significant lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among American millennials. The survey showed that 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 36% believed that “2 million or fewer Jews” were killed.

Photo by Bill Motchan

Over 40,000 camps and ghettos existed in Europe during the Holocaust. But 48% of survey respondents couldn’t name a single one. The survey broke down the results by state. In Missouri, among millennials:
· 64% did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
· 37% did not know what Auschwitz was.
· 50% could not name a concentration camp or ghetto.

One positive statistic emerges from the Claims Conference study. Most respondents, including 85% in Missouri, said it was important to continue teaching about the Holocaust, in part so it wouldn’t happen again.

Marci Rosenberg, former president of the museum who worked with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, said the lessons of the Holocaust must continue to be passed on to future generations to combat hate in all its forms.

“There is still so much anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, propaganda, lies and hatred in this world of what one human being can do to another,” she said. “It didn’t stop. We have been teaching these lessons for over 80 years. People told what was done to them because they were Jewish. That’s why this museum is here.

Main characteristics

The museum’s first significant design element is a sculpture of a red flame in front of the entrance. The sculpture was donated by developer and philanthropist Michael Staenberg. The image of a flame is significant because the definition of the word Holocaust is “destruction by fire”.

Photo by Bill Motchan

Visitors to the museum will enter through a main hall bathed in light. The ceiling panels and the front facade are uneven and distorted, inspired by Kristallnacht. This design blends into a flat, unbroken, dark gray wall on the north side of the lobby. This design element symbolizes a sense of hope.

The expanded facility is three times larger than the previous museum’s 8,000 square feet and will make St. Louis a major destination for Holocaust learning. The additional space allows curators to more effectively preserve and share survivor stories and challenge visitors to take on roles as collaborators, viewers, advocates and liberators.

In the main permanent exhibition area, visitors enter through a room that appears to have been covered in damask wallpaper. It is decorated with pre-war family photos that show the dynamism and diversity of Jewish life. Within the exhibition area are galleries that focus on the history of anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, the history of the Holocaust, the choices people made during the genocide, and the survivors.

Some of the other notable features are an expanded learning center, larger auditorium, classrooms, and flexible space that allow visitors to come together to reflect and discuss.

Interactivity Impact Lab

A section of the museum will inspire students and visitors to reject hate, promote understanding and inspire change. Known as the Impact Lab, this interactive space provides an opportunity to learn about topical issues such as genocide and hate crimes seen through the lens of the Holocaust.

Within the Impact Lab, each station will have a volunteer. Volunteers are preparing to open and undergo their own training, said Brayden Swathwood, programs and events coordinator.

“The training is pretty comprehensive,” Swathwood said. “I’ve been involved in theater for many years, and even I would say there’s a lot to remember for volunteers. But what’s interesting is that each group is going to have its own set of knowledge about the events. Each of the volunteers will have the opportunity to work with this group.

A leading Holocaust museum

There are other Holocaust memorials and small museums across the country, some at universities.

Susan Myers, President of the Association of Holocaust Organizations (AHO), said, “Our records indicate that there are 16 museums, including the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Museum, and two more that are preparing to break new ground in Orlando and Boston. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, our national museum, is the largest. We place all other museums in the second category, which are state-funded, public and private museums. »

Myers said the AHO does not rank these other 15 museums in order of size or amount spent on construction and renovations because “they are all important to our mission.”

The St. Louis Museum was already attended by AHO and, with the expansion, will be a destination for travelers, including history students and those studying World War II.

Law enforcement and society

The St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum is one of a small group of Holocaust museums that participate in the Law Enforcement & Society program, which teaches law enforcement officials how the police responded during the Holocaust and how to apply those lessons in their work today. It is one of the first institutions to pilot the program, which has trained thousands of law enforcement personnel. The program is organized in collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League.

Separation from the Jewish Federation

The August 1 announcement of the museum’s separation from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis marked the beginning of a new era for the museum, a 25-year-old institution. It was guided by the Federation’s strategic plan. Jewish Federation President and CEO Brian Herstig said running a museum of this size and scope is best handled by museum professionals.

“It will be its own institution with its own board and its own budget,” he said. “The Holocaust Museum will be a partner in ensuring that a very specific part of our community’s mission is fulfilled. We will fund them, support them and have a formal relationship with them.

The decision to part ways is the result of two six-month task force studies, Jewish Federation board chairman Greg Yawitz said.

“Task Force 1 looked at the macro concept of independence,” Yawitz said. “Working Group 2 did the hard work to determine what this actually meant and how it would potentially work, and recommendations regarding structures and governance. It was a well-considered decision because of its importance.

Over the next few months, the Federation’s Board of Directors will be drafting regulations and policies for the museum. It will also apply for 501c3 (non-profit) status and select an initial board of directors. After the official separation, some services and security will continue to be shared between the two institutions.

To look forward

The reopening of the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum marks an important milestone in Holocaust remembrance. The facility will be a major destination for history and learning.

What future for the museum? Levine, the acting director, said he has the potential to be a partner in education across the region and the country.

“I really see us breaking the cycle of hate and violence,” Levine said. “You have to stick to it every day. I believe this museum sits at the intersection of trauma-informed education, which so many young and old now need. They need this awareness.

The museum will also be a beacon of hope and a positive influence, Yawitz said.

“I hope the museum will open people’s eyes and make them more thoughtful about what is possible and put people on a more positive trajectory in how they treat others, how they view the world through the lens of others,” he said.

The St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum opens to the public at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, November 2. The free print edition of the Jewish Light Holocaust Memorial Museum, filled with news, stories, images and graphics, also coincides with the opening. For museum opening hours and more information, please see the website.