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Connecting to History’s Lessons

It’s said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. While most of us have probably heard those words and nodded in agreement, how many of us have ever taken the time to understand not only historical events, but also the lessons to be learned in retrospect?

The rise of the Nazi party and the Holocaust are parts of history many would like to forget. Some might feel it was all a long time ago and an ocean away, but there are certainly lessons to be learned from what happened in Germany all those years ago. And many believe it could happen again if we don’t make the connections and learn the lessons.

When it comes to connecting the facts and the lessons we can learn from the Holocaust, The St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC) is a one-of-a-kind experience. Opened in May 1995, the HMLC is a department of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. It was created with the mission of bridging the gaps between historical facts, human experience, lessons we can learn, and how each of us can play a role in ensuring events like the Holocaust never happen again.

The HMLC sits on the Jewish Federation campus and consists of 5,000 square feet of core exhibition space, which displays a chronological history of the years between 1933 and 1945 as well as post-war events, including the Nuremberg Trials and Jewish life after the Holocaust. It also includes an interactive Learning Center where visitors can make an even deeper connection between then and now.

Every section of the museum contains an impressive collection of artifacts, photographs, and letters – most contributed by the roughly 300 Jewish Holocaust survivors, veterans and other witnesses from the St. Louis area. Those visual displays are powerful, but the museum is so much more than just viewing. The museum’s creators also incorporated other elements to the experience. They wanted visitors to not only see but hear from those who lived it. They wanted to connect a human face and relatable human experience to the events of those years. And they wanted each visitor to walk away with a deeper understanding of not only what happened, but how it progressed and why.

To give that deeper understanding, St. Louis survivors bravely shared their testimonies with visitors and recounted what they witnessed and felt during that time. As survivors have passed on, second and third generations of survivors have stepped forward to tell their family stories. But some of the original testimonies live on in recorded testimonials woven throughout the exhibits. The HMLC also has several hundred testimonies from survivors, liberators, veterans and other witnesses on both audio and video tapes, thanks to Vida ‘Sister’ Goldman Prince, one of the museum’s volunteers who initiated an oral history project in the ‘70s.

For the roughly 30,000 visitors the HMLC welcomes each year, many of whom are middle school to college age, those personal accounts bring what they may already know about the Holocaust to life and make it more relatable. And that, combined with The Learning Center, is what makes the St. Louis Holocaust Museum so special.

Vera Emmons, a docent and second generation survivor who shares her mother’s story with her groups, sees the Learning Center as a unique opportunity for highlighting how easily it all could happen again and how hidden biases exist within us all today. She feels that the connections visitors make at this stage of the tours are vital to internalizing the lessons from the Holocaust.

One of Emmons’ favorite parts of the Learning Center is an interactive, visual tool called The Progression of Hate, which is part of The Change Begins With Me exhibit. Emmons explains, “There are words we use all the time in our society, like stereotyping, and I want to go through with the kids and ask them what that really means, to get them actively thinking about it. I point out that we all stereotype and I encourage them to think of ways we do, so we can maybe catch ourselves. I also ask what they think the differences are between a stereotype and prejudice and ask for examples they might have seen. They’re often reluctant to speak up, but when I point out that it doesn’t mean they actually think that, they’ll come up with all kinds of stuff.”

Helping students and other members of the community realize that prejudices still exist today is a big part of the mission at the HMLC, which is why they’ve created many other programs. One of those programs is an art and writing contest held each year, where middle school and high school students can respond to what they’ve learned about the Holocaust through visual arts or writing. And, 10 years ago, the HMLC started a program for law enforcement, in collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League, called Law Enforcement and Society, or LEAS.

The LEAS program conducts workshops for local law enforcement, which build a bridge of understanding for them too. They talk about the history and the role law enforcement played in 1930s Germany, then bring the conversation up to more contemporary issues like what safeguards exist now and what the responsibilities of law enforcement are now, with respect to not only protecting us, but following ethical and legal guidelines.

  Dan Reich, Curator and Director of Education at HMLC, strongly believes that if people can see how the events leading up to the Holocaust unfolded and how many people of that time stood by and did nothing as the Jews were increasingly ostracized and dehumanized, they’ll realize how important it is to speak up when we see similar behaviors in our society today.

Reich states, “One of the primary lessons from the Holocaust is to not be a bystander. That’s a lesson that is as appropriate now as it was then. If you see something going on, and you’re in a position where you can speak out, you have a responsibility to speak out. The Holocaust could not have happened without collaboration and bystanders who allowed it to happen.”

Through the presentations at the HMLC, visitors clearly see how the Holocaust was allowed to happen. And in this place where history and human experience collide, empathy and understanding grow. Visitors come to more fully understand how the progression of hate and incremental changes in laws and thinking over a period of years ended so tragically for millions of Jewish people – not only those who died, but also those who survived but carried the memories of those traumatic events with them.

For the St. Louis survivors who shared those painful memories so others could understand, and the museum visitors who are given the opportunity to see the human side of the Holocaust, it may be difficult to delve into that history to learn the lessons. But Elie Wiesel, a well-known Holocaust survivor, once said, “We have to go into the despair and go beyond it, by working and doing for somebody else, by using it for something else.” In other words, allowing ourselves to be deeply touched by those events is an important part of doing better, being better, and never allowing it to happen again. Though decades have passed and life has gone on, the valuable lessons from that time do resonate today… and never letting it happen again can begin with each of us.

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