Holocaust Museum looks forward on 20th anniversary

Last week, longtime Holocaust Museum and Learning Center docent Sarijane Freiman  (right) leads a museum tour for a group studying English as a Second Language in the Parkway Area Adult Education and Literacy program. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Sarijane Freiman of Clayton still recalls the childhood memory of standing in a Famous-Barr department store and seeing a woman with numbers tattooed on her arm.

“I remember asking my mother why she would do that, at which point my mother explained what had been happening in Europe and that this woman must be treasured because she survived hell,” Freiman said. “Those words really impacted me.”

Today, having that kind of impact on children doesn’t require a chance meeting. For the past 20 years, busloads of students have had the opportunity to learn about the Shoah through the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center, which will mark the end of its second decade with a dinner and reception at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton on Thursday, Aug. 20.

According to those who know the institution best, its mission hasn’t changed since its founding in 1995, although some of its methods have.

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“The idea for creating a Holocaust Museum really came from members of the survivor community,” said Dan Reich, HMLC curator and education director. “They wanted not a memorial garden — although we do have a memorial garden — or a piece of sculpture. They really wanted a destination where visitors, especially schoolchildren, could come and learn both the history and lessons of the Holocaust.”

Schoolchildren on field trips has been a fixture from the beginning as the center  worked to convey one of history’s most tragic stories to the next generation, a task that initially fell to a study center and groups of survivors who worked in an on-call capacity to give talks at schools and organizations. 

“It really shifted from sending people out to bringing people in,” Reich said of the museum’s creation.

Other aspects have evolved over the years as well. History will always be a core part of the center’s raison d’etre, but its focus was even stronger in the beginning.

“Now there is much more emphasis given to the lessons of the Holocaust that make the history more relevant for the visitor today,” Reich said. “I’ve really seen the entire field of Holocaust museums evolve. When I first came onboard, there was really a division of how to balance other genocides, contemporary issues, with the history of the Holocaust. But as time went on, I would say the overwhelming majority of museums now give some attention of significance to other genocides and contemporary issues.”

That means the center doesn’t only talk about past events and preserve artifacts and stories from St. Louis survivors. It also brings a more global perspective in the wake of mass killings in Cambodia, the Balkans, Rwanda and Darfur.

Reich, who has been with the institution for 16 years, says one turning point might have been the 9/11 attacks.

“Not that I would equate that with the Holocaust, but it was such a monumental event that happened in our country that sort of opened people’s eyes to the fact that the lessons of the Holocaust were not learned,” he said.

So how does one make the past come alive for today’s audiences?

“When our middle and high school visitors come here, the Holocaust is that much further away from them in terms of history and time,” Reich said. “Even 20 years makes a significant difference to a teenager. Now, it is their great-grandparents who maybe were alive at that time. Making that history relevant, which is still the central core of the museum, was something of a challenge.”

That became the impetus for ideas such as the interactive Change Begins With Me exhibit.

“These horrific incidents, genocide, ethnic conflict, acts based on hate, have continued in our world today,” Reich said.

A shrinking population of survivors due to the passage of time is yet another issue. Reich calls them the heart and soul of the institution. One of the HMLC’s missions has become making certain that survivors’ stories don’t die once they are no longer alive to give first-person accounts.

One solution has been the use of survivors’ children who have learned their parents’ histories well enough to communicate the narrative. Other relatives have assisted as well.

“It’s been pretty successful,” Reich said. “We have someone who tells their cousin’s story. They wanted to do it as a tribute to their cousin.”

Videotape has provided another method, although Kent Hirschfelder, chairman of the museum, said that the format has limitations.

“The problem with that is that they tell a terrific story, but the visitor doesn’t get the one-on-one Q&A that they would with survivors in the past,” Hirschfelder said.

Still, the center has worked hard to commit its survivors’ stories to tape for future generations.

Hirschfelder said the center also has embraced technology to explain history. In addition to the Change Begins With Me exhibit and new audio tours, the museum’s Genocide Clock shows the 111 million people who have been killed since the end of WWII, ticking up one person every 19 seconds.

“We hope that our visitors take away a very positive experience with the use of some these new interactive exhibits,” said Hirschfelder, whose father escaped the Nazis in Munich. “They really take us where museums like ours need to go, and that’s contemporizing the learning experience from the history of the Holocaust to the lessons of the Holocaust.” 

Freiman, the little girl who wondered so long ago about the woman with the unusual tattoo, has been a docent at the museum for most of its existence. She said it has expanded outreach, updated exhibits and implemented new programs.

However, the focus hasn’t changed.

“It is to educate the world on what happens when nobody says anything,” the Temple Israel congregant said. “Everyone who has been involved should take great pride in the number of people we have reached, the number of children who have come through and all of the lessons.”

One thing is clear, however. As survivors pass away, the face of the mission will continue to evolve.

“Everyone has discussed at all our different conferences that it is going to change the nature of Holocaust education, but I don’t think there is any consensus about what that is going to look like,” Reich said.

Still, there remains one big obstacle. Reich recalls the times he has mentioned to others that he works at the Holocaust Museum — only to have them react with surprise and ask whether he commutes to work in Washington.

“The challenge has been to get the adult public to know that we’re here,” he said.

HMLC 20th Anniversary Gala

WHEN:   Thursday,  Aug. 20; reception begins at 5:30 p.m. 

WHERE:  Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, 100 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton

HOW MUCH: $150; a variety of sponsorship levels are available.

MORE INFO:   RSVPs are due by Friday, Aug. 14. For more information on the event, visit hmlc.org/events/20thdinner or call 314-442-3711.