Expanded St. Louis Holocaust museum explores history of hate, and how to combat it today
There’s an artifact sitting in a glass case at the newly expanded St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum in Creve Coeur that’s very small but makes a powerful impression.
A child’s brown, leather shoe sits alone. Allied forces found it after World War II at a site where Nazis murdered thousands of Jews.
“No matter how much research we conduct or how many books we read or how many interviews we do, we will never know who owned that shoe,” said Helen Turner, the museum’s director of education. “That shoe is a reminder to me of how much we lost in the Holocaust, and a reminder to me that we speak for all of the people who were murdered.”
After a two-year, $19.8 million renovation and expansion that quadrupled its size, the museum reopens Wednesday.
The additional space gives curators more room to tell the story of the Holocaust, including the increasing prevalence of Nazi propaganda before World War II and the sometimes epic journeys that survivors made from Europe to other spots in the world.
It also makes space for a forward-looking message: the importance of ongoing vigilance about discrimination and hate.
“This is not a history that you hear and you simply go on. This is a history that should — and, I think, does — completely change and shake you,” Turner said. “And if we've done our job right, it should also be a call to action. How are you going to make a difference? How are you going to speak up? How are you going to speak out?”
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored murder by Germany of people at an industrial scale. Nazis killed 6 million Jews and millions more Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, disabled and LGBTQ people, and members of other scapegoated communities.
About 800 Holocaust survivors relocated to St. Louis. A group of them founded the museum, first known as the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center, in 1995. For most of its history, the museum was run as a department within the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and shared space with the nonprofit funder.
The museum’s reopening caps a period of major change for the organization.
The federation announced in August that the museum would split from it, becoming an independent entity with its own board of directors and staff. Frances Levine, longtime president and CEO of the Missouri Historical Society and Missouri History Museum, stepped out of a brief retirement in October to become the Holocaust museum’s first interim executive director.
The organization announced the members of its first board of directors Tuesday.
Museum staff say the new, 35,000-square-foot facility will position the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum as a leader in its field.
“We want to be a regional powerhouse. Depending on how you count, there are between 15 and 25 Holocaust museums in the United States, and we really want to be at the forefront of that,” said Amy Lutz, a Holocaust researcher and the museum’s manager of communications.
A distinctive feature is the museum’s impact lab, where visitors will work through a 15-minute program, led by staff, that explores what curators call the spiral of hate: when stereotyping leads to prejudice, then discrimination, violence and ultimately genocide.
“It’s not an exhibition and it’s not a classroom,” Turner said. “It’s literally a lab of you. It’s a place for self-exploration.”
Impact lab visitors will hear testimony from survivors of hate crimes and genocides, including the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Cambodian genocide of 1974-79 and the ongoing detention of Uyghurs in China. They will also learn about the work of Native American activist Wilma Mankiller, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., LGBTQ trailblazer Harvey Milk and others who fought on behalf of persecuted people.
The program culminates with discussion about how to intervene when acts of bigotry happen.
“This is about moving from a bystander to an active ally,” Turner said.
Museum staff members designed the impact lab with help from the Anti-Defamation League and Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit group that develops school curricula about the nature of bigotry and the history of human right abuses.
The museum expansion comes at a time of rising antisemitism in the U.S.
The number of hate crimes against Jewish people had been decreasing in the nation until 2016. Many white supremacists liked what they heard from former President Donald Trump and became emboldened. White supremacist groups have historically included Jews among the groups they target.
Since 2016, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. have increased every year, according to the Anti Defamation League.
Some on the political right continue to circulate conspiracy theories related to specific lies about Jews that have inspired antisemitic violence for hundreds of years.
The museum’s message is urgent, Levine said.
“This museum could not happen in a more timely sequence. I think what we have seen over the last several years is the rise of antisemitism, the rise of othering,” she said. “What we have in this building is the opportunity to look at the way in which propaganda, discrimination and hatred tore the world apart.”
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