Remembering a tragedy: Survivors tour the new Southwest Florida Holocaust museum

Thaddeus Mast, Naples Daily News

The famed photo of a smiling Anne Frank greets visitors to the newly opened Holocaust Museum and Cohen Education Center of Southwest Florida.

A cursory look shows that thousands of photos create a collage of the young Holocaust victim. Pictures from local survivors and liberators are tucked away in the piece of art.

“This is the late Lorie Mayer, one of the co-founders of the museum,” said Joan Hogan, marketing and communications manager.

Holocaust survivors and interested onlookers faced the photo and toured the museum’s galleries during a grand opening Sunday afternoon. Hundreds of visitors sat next to a Nazi boxcar and pondered the importance of remembering the atrocities of World War II.

“If we don’t take the time to learn our past, then how can we expect to learn from our past,” Sen. Kathleen Passidomo said. “Every visitor who walks through here, be it seniors, adults and students, will gain a better understanding of what occurred during the Holocaust. This facility will touch them like no textbook, novel or movie can.”

Once inside, visitors are drawn to the first gallery behind the photo-mural. Blue lights illuminate a storm cloud on the floor while highlighting items and stories about the rise of Nazi power leading to World War II.

“(The blue cloud) shows you the gathering storm of war and what people will face,” Hogan said.

Visitors can watch and listen to speeches and propaganda from Third Reich leaders and read about the impending dangers leading to 12 million deaths.

Red dominates the second gallery. Barbed wire outlines the floor. Clean wooden accents become ragged boards with iron strips, evoking memories of Nazi boxcars that took millions of people to their deaths at concentration camps.

Visitors learn of the horrors Jewish people faced in Nazi-occupied Europe, including examples of the infamous yellow Star of David badges.

These galleries were displayed at the former location closer to downtown Naples. However, it was about two-thirds the size of the new museum. The new space, closer to the Lee County line, offers more room for exhibits.

The life after war and how displaced Jews found new homes is now presented to visitors.

“It ties the past to the present,” Hogan said.

Temporary exhibits will rotate through additional spaces. A look at Stalin’s artificial famine in Ukraine, leading to millions of deaths, is currently on display.

A special reflection room ends the tour. Sunlight from a skylight window illuminates a wall with lines marking the liberation of every concentration camp. The line will light with sunshine on the date it was freed from Nazi control.

“It’s a very special space,” Hogan said.

The 6,000-square-foot space in a mall off Imperial Golf Course Boulevard was bought and refurbished for $3.5 million, with Janet Cohen’s donation of $1 million leading the effort. The museum now shares her name.

Cohen and her family weren’t directly affected by the Holocaust, but she said the donation helps tell an important message to people who have forgotten the past.

“I don’t think (the importance of the Holocaust museum) has to do with religion or anything like that,” she said. “It has to do with remembering a terrible event and having people be aware of what took place.”

SOURCE: Naples Daily News

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