Gov. Scott visits St. Pete museum on Holocaust Remembrance Day
ST. PETERSBURG -
Ellen Bernstein has worked in the bookstore of the Florida Holocaust museum since it opened 21 years ago, but rarely leafs through the pages of the products she sells.
“It's hard for me to read the books, mainly because I lost a lot of family during the Holocaust – they disappeared,” she said. “When I'm in the gift shop and I pull out books and I look at them I tend to spend hours looking at the pictures, thinking maybe there's a picture of my cousin or my aunt.”
When she was 10, Bernstein escaped Bonn, Germany with her family just two months before Nov. 9, 1938 – known as “the night of broken glass,” when Jews in Germany were attacked and herded into concentration camps. Sunday, national Holocaust Remembrance Day, was spent remembering the more than 6 million Jews who did not survive.
Gov. Rick Scott and a throng of politicians and reporters spent the morning touring the museum, located in downtown St. Petersburg. After the tour, Scott proclaimed the week of April 7 to April 14 as Holocaust days of remembrance. The museum will host a commemoration ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Monday to kick off Genocide Awareness Month, where historian Deborah Dwork will talk about how the Holocaust impacted family bonds.
“There was no holocaust museum when I was growing up, but in my children's lifetime they've been to Anne Frank's house … to Auschwitz,” Scott said. “Once you go to places like this museum you never forget. If we don't continue to educate ourselves and remind our children and grandchildren these things will happen again.”
Scott's visit countered a day that can often be viewed as depressing with “uplifting” talk of how to prevent such hatred in the future, said Marty Borell, chairman of the museum's board of directors.
“When you see the kids asking questions like, 'Why did this happen? Why didn't people stand up?,' you really see the light bulbs go off and it really becomes a magical place,” Borell said. “The story is somber, but the lessons are so important. Once you hear those stories you can't help but view the world a bit differently.”
As Scott asked questions about the exhibits, 11-year-old Braion Moreland caught his attention. Posing for his mother, Josalyn Triplett, to take a few shaky photos on her smartphone, Moreland asked Scott why he wanted to be a governor and walked away with his business card and an invitation to visit him in Tallahassee.
“I can't decide if I want to be president or a governor or an NFL player – I'm small but I'm fast,” Moreland said. “But seeing all the kids' pictures in here is really sad. They had to sit in a train car and suffer with no food and no water. They never got to grow up.”
College freshmen Thomas Tarantola and Russell Heller were visiting the museum to finish a paper for their humanities class at the University of South Florida, but took a chance and jumped into Scott's entourage, literally rubbing elbows with the Governor as he weaved through the exhibits.
“Neither of us had ever been here before, but we were surprised to see Gov. Scott here,” Tarantola said. “Our project is on ethnic cleansing, not just among Jews but among lots of different groups. It's hard to think that such hatred of other people can still exist in the world.”
Borell said the museum is working to reach more people across the nation -- putting exhibits and survivor testimony online and sending trunks of free school materials across the state.
And somewhere among the thousands of photographs and relics in the museum that are being archived forever online is Bernstein's childhood passport – stamped with a “J” to signify that she is Jewish. She now has a husband, a son, four grandchildren and six great grandchildren with another on the way but it's hard not to think about how her life could have taken a very different course, she said.
“I haven't talked too much to my family about it, but I always try to talk to the children that come through the museum and tell them my story,” Bernstein said. “It's an odd feeling when I pass by and see people looking at my things and I mention that it's me and they can't believe it. They're so thrilled to meet somebody who survived the Holocaust and that's my job, to remind them that it was real.”