Going strong at 15

The unprecedented nature of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks shocked all Americans into the novel realities of a new and frightening world. But amidst the horror and disbelief, George Spooner found an emotion that contrasted sharply with the terrifying bewilderment gripping those around him. Still, it was a feeling no less intense and no less unsettling – familiarity.

“It was the second time in my life I lost my innocence,” recalled the Chesterfield resident who will celebrate his 82nd birthday next month. “The first time was in 1938 when the Nazis took over Austria.”

For Spooner, who would escape his native land via the Kindertransport, the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon echoed the flames he’d seen engulfing his own synagogue as a young boy in Vienna on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938. A decision solidified in his mind. Shortly after 9/11 he became a volunteer at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in Memory of Gloria M. Goldstein.

“To me personally, it’s a place where we can tell the story of what it means to be Jewish, and to show how we have survived, grown and thrived not just in this area but throughout the entire world,” said Spooner, who now shares his reflections with hundreds of visiting schoolchildren every year. “We will not be denied.”

For a decade and a half the museum has provided an outlet for people like Spooner to provide firsthand accounts that bring to life the harrowing experiences of millions of Jewish survivors for a generation of American teenagers to whom the events of Adolf Hitler’s Europe might otherwise seem as historically distant and remote as tales of ancient Babylonian conquests or Salem witch burnings.

“Time and again the questions that I get and the responses from them really show me how worthwhile this museum is,” said Myrna Meyer, permanent exhibition chairperson. “One knows they are making an impression on students and in many cases changing their minds.”

Meyer is chairing the upcoming May 16 gala (see page 3) to celebrate the museum’s 15th anniversary. She said that as much as the field trip tours illuminate the Shoah for children, the Ira and Judith Gall Art and Writing Contest, which generates hundreds of entries a year from middle and high school students, is no less revealing for Meyer. It shows her what the teens are learning.

“You know that the museum is affecting these kids during their visits by how beautifully and creatively they write about the Holocaust,” she said. “Some even put themselves in the story as though they are living through it themselves.”

Yet, as much as it may be an indispensible part of the community today, the path to a Holocaust museum in St. Louis wasn’t always so clear. Leo Wolf, one of the driving forces behind the HMLC’s creation said proponents faced great resistance to the idea from within the Jewish community.

“They threw me out of one door and I’d come in the other door,” said Wolf, a survivor of Auschwitz, who lost his entire family to the Nazis. “‘No’ wasn’t in my vocabulary.”

Wolf, a Creve Coeur resident, had been supporting the local Yom HaShoah observance since the late 1960s but over the decades, backed by a group of fellow survivors, he worked hard to champion the idea of a Holocaust education facility, something more impressive than the small downtown office that had served as the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies since 1977. It was an effort to which Wolf would donate virtually his entire life savings – about $100,000. For some that might have seemed a dramatic move, but for Wolf the logic – and his mission – couldn’t have been clearer.

“I had no relatives left,” he said. “I lost everybody. There must be a reason. Why else should I be here?”

Wolf wasn’t alone in his fight. Tom Green, a Clayton attorney, was president of the Jewish Federation in the late 1980s. He said that when the Kopolow Building was constructed there had originally been plans for a Holocaust facility on the lower floor but efforts ran aground as the project encountered money woes. Green and then-executive vice president Bill Kahn worked hard to move the ball forward.

“One of the leaders at that time was Isadore Millstone and Isadore felt very strongly we should do it,” Green said. “There was a fair amount of opposition but the Federation finally approved it assuming we could raise the money and find enough for an endowment that would carry the ongoing funding.”

And raise money they did. Green said the group was tasked with acquiring half a million dollars for the endowment. They brought in about $2 million for the project, in part from support by local businessman Sam Goldstein. In 1995, the HMLC opened for business bearing Goldstein’s wife’s name. Then-Governor Mel Carnahan was on hand for the event, as was Attorney General Jay Nixon. Nixon, now the governor, will attend this month’s anniversary gala as well.

Bill Kahn, for whom a garden walkway outside the museum is named, praised the roles Wolf and Green, former Jewish Federation President Siegmund Halpern and the late Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs in “causing the dream to become a reality.”

In some ways, the HMLC’s birth was reflective of conversations about the Shoah that were taking place all across the country and the world at the time. Green said the Holocaust wasn’t widely discussed by its survivors until the late 1970s or early 1980s and extensive Holocaust educational institutions were a rarity. In that sense, the local HMLC was something of a pioneer. Even the national United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had only opened two years before.

“St. Louis was one of the beginnings,” Green said. “We were among the first cities of our size to really have a true museum. Others had various and sundry things, maybe a room with some artifacts or something like that but not a full-fledged museum.”

Dan Reich, curator and education director of the HMLC joined the organization in 1999. He said that survivors had long visited schools and talked about their experiences but the museum’s opening provided a chance to present a broader picture to those who wanted to learn.

“When the museum opened the emphasis shifted to bringing schools and organizations here to see the larger context of Holocaust history before hearing an individual survivor’s story,” Reich said.

An important force in the museum’s early days was Rabbi Robert Sternberg, former HMLC director, who established many of the museum’s exhibits and programs before moving on to Springfield, Mass., to start another Holocaust museum.

“Rabbi Sternberg did community outreach to all the Holocaust survivors who lived here asking for items we might be able to use,” said Jean Cavender, executive director of the HMLC. “He was really the person who was responsible for that.”

Cavender said that the HMLC collected so much material that much of it is never seen by museum patrons. A recent grant has allowed the organization to work with archivist Diane Everman to help categorize and preserve many of the photos and other items that are not on public display. Moreover, not all of the artifacts pertain directly to the Holocaust. Some of them trace family histories in Germany well before the Nazi era.

“Diane just uncovered some incredible pieces back there and she’d come up and tell us ‘You don’t really understand what you have,'” Cavender said. “She said we have enough interesting items that we could actually put on a really great exhibition on World War I.”

Today however, there is little doubt about what the museum has. Between 350 and 400 schools visit the facility each year and almost all schedule return trips. Hundreds of volunteers have been trained. Forty to 50 docents currently guide tours. Twelve to 15 local survivors, four of them detainees from the camps, give talks. The HMLC also works to train teachers on Holocaust education through workshops and the Rubin and Gloria Feldman Education Outreach Program and educate law enforcement cadets through a joint initiative with the Anti-Defamation League. For those schools, which can’t bring students in person, 19 trunks with learning materials travel the region courtesy of funding by the Staenberg family. Meanwhile, Cavender looks forward to more programs in the future, partnering with second and even third-generation participants from survivor families to keep the Shoah’s legacy alive.

It may have been a challenge getting to this point but Green said there is no question it was worth the effort.

“I think it’s been one of the great successes in the community,” he said. “We have about 30,000 children a year come through here, mainly non-Jews. It’s interesting that some of the people who were not in favor of it initially came to me after we built it and said ‘We were wrong. This was the right thing to do.'”