Holocaust educator from New York succeeds longtime curator at St. Louis museum

Dan+Reich+%28right%29+is+retiring+from+the+Kaplan+Feldman+Holocaust+Museum+at+the+end+of+the+month.+The+museum+has+hired+Helen+Turner+as+director+of+education+and+interpretation.+

Dan Reich (right) is retiring from the Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum at the end of the month. The museum has hired Helen Turner as director of education and interpretation.

Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Helen Turner’s former employer, the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, featured a child’s shoe from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp.

The location of the other shoe? The St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum, where Turner started in July as director of education and interpretation.

“It was a beautiful coincidence of accepting this position and knowing where the sister shoe was,” Turner said. “But for me, my reason for Holocaust education is that set of shoes. It’s to tell the stories of those whose lives were extinguished because of hate.”

Turner’s passion for Holocaust education could help the museum during a time of significant change for the institution. She not only is replacing Dan Reich, the curator and director of education who is retiring after 23 years at the museum, but she is also joining the museum as it undergoes a $21 million renovation.

And as evidenced by the recent death of Mendel Rosenberg, a local Holocaust survivor who spoke about his experience for decades, museums around the country are adjusting to the reality that there are fewer survivors alive to share their stories each year. 

In addition, there are ongoing concerns about antisemitism and bigotry across the United States, which the museum seeks to combat. 

Turner “is creative and passionate and capable and more important than that, is her obvious empathy and compassion,” said Reich, who is leaving the museum at the end of August. “She has already been interacting with members of the survivor community, making those connections, and it’s clear that she recognizes the important role of survivors in our community.”

Turner, 31, was born in a farming village in southern England. She is not Jewish and said her elementary school education about World War II consisted mostly of learning about England’s victory. Then the mom of Turner’s German friend “very gently explained what the Holocaust was. She did it in a beautiful, kind, thoughtful way. And as a 7-year- old, it completely gripped me because I felt that (Holocaust victims’) stories had been silenced,” she said.

In 2000, Turner and her family moved to New York.  She then studied history, with a focus on Holocaust studies, at Binghamton University and continued to focus on the Holocaust while earning a master’s degree at Stony Brook University. In 2011, she joined the Holocaust center in Nassau County and remained there for the next decade in various education roles. 

She said she worked to connect with education stakeholders outside the museum. 

“I believe in being at the PTA meetings, being at the board of [education], getting to know your teachers, know the superintendent, which I intend to do in St. Louis and the wider region of Missouri,” said Turner. “I think it’s a great privilege to connect with Holocaust educators — be they middle school or high school teachers or upper-level directors of museums all over the country and all over the world.”

Once Turner heard about the job opportunity in St. Louis, at a museum undergoing a major expansion, she said she “could not shake that this is where I wanted to be.”

“Very honestly in my career path, there are very few opportunities to be at the building of a Holocaust museum. It really hasn’t happened too much since the 90s, so this is a rare and unique opportunity,” she said.

The new museum, which is scheduled to open in summer 2022, will be 36,000 square-feet, four times the size of the previous building. 

Turner said she is looking forward to incorporating new audio and video technology to tell Holocaust survivors’ stories throughout the museum.

“They are taking the newest technology available to us to make a world-class museum,” said Turner. “There is such a passion [at the museum] for the stories of St. Louis survivors and survivors around the world, and I think when you combine the best technology we’ve got with that passion for storytelling, that’s how you make this history continue on and keep survivors’ stories front and center.”

Reich has been with the museum, which opened in 1995, for most of its existence. He said the museum has always focused on telling the stories of St. Louis survivors and witnesses, which makes the institution unique in the field.

“The focus on local survivors and their voices will continue and be even stronger in the expanded museum,” Reich said. 

Reich, 67, said he had considered retiring for a long time and felt that now was the right moment, as the museum prepares to begin a new chapter. 

“It seemed like a good time for me to maybe move on and make room for newer energy and newer vision,” said Reich, who plans to move to his hometown, Chicago, and spend more time with extended family there. 

He also believes that he is leaving education at the museum in good hands. 

“As [Turner] has been meeting the survivors, the docents, our lay leadership, we have all been so impressed, not only by her capability, her talents, but also her sensitivity and her realization of the importance of this work,” Reich said. “So I’m sorry I won’t have that long of a chance to work with her, but I certainly will be a resource for her and the museum.”

Turner also said she feels lucky to succeed Reich.

“It’s a challenge, and I feel very privileged that he is trusting me with an institution that he loves so much,” she said. “I feel very honored that he has been so gracious and so kind to me, along with the rest of the team; the staff here is extraordinary.”

Don Hannon, acting executive director of the museum, described Reich’s retirement as “well deserved.”

“I don’t think there is anybody who exemplifies the spirit the museum has had for the last 25 years more than Dan does. I think that is why he is so loved and respected, and our intention is that he will still be part of the museum family,” Hannon said. 

Turner was the right successor, Hannon said, because of her strengths in K-12 education. 

“That’s our real focus for the new museum,” Hannon said. “And she brings a strong skill set and competency.”

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