Remembering, Learning

by Julie Clay

THE BUILDING WAS nondescript, another section of storefront facade on US 41 in Naples. Inside, the room was quiet, and jam-packed with over 1,000 newspaper clippings, artifacts, personal accounts. Everything neatly framed and orderly, ready to impress upon the visitor the horror of what ‘really’ happened, and the importance of how we absolutely cannot let it happen again — ever. Welcome to the Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida.

The systematic extermination of anyone deemed inferior by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich regime, or Nazi party, began when Hitler rose to power in 1933 and peaked just before Germany’s surrender of World War II to the Allies in 1945. Although many others including gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally and physically handicapped were targeted, most famous are the majority who perished, the six million Jews. Here in Naples, the initial idea for the Holocaust Museum came surprisingly not from the Jewish community, but a class of middle schoolers in Golden Gate City.

Museum Education Director Amy Snyder shares, “A class of seventh grade students at Golden Gate Middle School, under the direction of teachers David Bell and Michelle Lee, created a classroom art exhibit entitled, ‘Out of the Ashes’, in 1997-98. From this initial exhibit, several community members of various religious and non-religious backgrounds became involved. The initial funding for a permanent space came from the Jewish Federation of Collier County, and they continue to be a major supporter of the Museum. Support also comes from individuals, temples, churches, schools and business organizations across Southwest Florida. We became a non-profit museum in 2001.”

A simulated sign featuring a prominent yellow Star of David (just like the armbands Jews were forced to wear) is on display near the beginning of the tour, stating “Whoever wears this sign is an enemy of the people.” And so it begins, this journey into genocide. I took in pictures of charred Jewish businesses, the Warsaw Ghetto, and mass ‘trench’ executions including the infamous Babi Yar ravine. All leading up to the ‘Final Solution’, gas chambers and concentration camps. (Auschwitz, a triumvirate of camps in northern Germany, was the size of Naples!) We say referring to 9/11 that we will not forget. We must never forget the events of the Holocaust, either.

Furthering this effort, in 2008 the Museum acquired an authentic Austrian boxcar built in 1919. Its sole purpose, says Snyder, is to bring the story of the Holocaust to schools, libraries and churches during the school year. She says, “This allows a much larger number of students to participate than would be able to visit the Museum. This project allows students to experience history right on their campus and in so doing, we also ask the school to host a Survivor so students can hear directly how people were affected through the deportation process. A location will host the boxcar for a minimum of one week, we present a teacher training prior to its arrival, and we assist teachers as necessary throughout the time they host.

The project is made possible by Jack & F.E. Nortman, from whom the boxcar is on permanent loan to the Museum. Mr. Nortman was born in a displaced persons camp, his parents both Survivors of the Holocaust.” I stepped into the boxcar and although I really didn’t want to, imagined what it might have been like to be stuffed in there, bodies on top of bodies with no food, no water, no air (the Nazis sealed and locked all vents and windows) to be carted off to die anyway. Although the Museum can’t make a 100% guarantee of its use for that purpose, there is pretty strong assumption given its Austrian origin and time frame of assembly.

With the ‘season’ just about here, the Museum has several exciting exhibits planned. Says Snyder, “In January, we’ll be hosting the world premier exhibit, Faces of Anne Frank, by renowned Sanibel artist Myra Roberts. This 22-piece exhibit is accompanied by a book by Ft. Myers journalist, Ella Nayor, that shares the stories of many of our local Survivors, as well as people from all walks of life who have been touched by discrimination in Southwest Florida.

“Following that, we’ll revisit an exhibit donated to us last year by Venice, Florida artist, Bill Farnsworth — Painting the Irena Sendler Story. These 19 pieces of original artwork are the illustrations for a recent children’s book entitled, Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto. Irena, a Polish-Catholic, worked with an underground resistance group to rescue children from the Warsaw Ghetto in the early 1940s.

“To round out our season, we’ll be hosting a photography exhibit entitled, ‘Desaparecidos: A Tribute to Argentina’s Disappeared’, by Sylvia Horwitz in March and early April. This exhibit highlights the activist efforts of mothers in Argentina whose children disappeared under the military junta in the 1970s and 80s.”

She adds that the permanent collection has been donated on permanent loan from Homer and Diana Helter, local businesspeople who have provided many pieces. Bob and Pat Wynalda have also donated many pieces, including the aforementioned ‘enemy of the people’ sign. “A large portion has been donated by local survivors, Liberators and World War II veterans,” Snyder adds.

The day I was there, in fact, survivor and Museum Educator, Annaliese Salamon was working. She shares her story of imprisonment at Czechoslovakia’s Theresienstadt ‘camp’ ghetto regularly at area middle and high schools, noting that Hispanic children seem to identify much more with her experience. She has also spoken at Dr. Talbot Spivak Holocaust Memorial week, which Edison State College in Fort Myers hosts annually.

From pictures of prisoners looking more like human skeletons than people, to chilling artifacts and heroic photographs of camp liberations, the Holocaust Museum presents it all, simply and profoundly. Remembering, learning from the past. •

from the September-October 2011 issue

Auschwitz, a triumvirate of
camps in northern Germany,
was the size of Naples!

Holocaust Museum
& Education Center
of Southwest Florida
4760 Tamiami Trail N
Sandalwood Square

Tue-Sun 1-4pm