On Aug. 3, I finally made it to the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg with a small group of friends and colleagues. Despite its close proximity to Bradenton, this was my first visit.
I imagine myself like many people, tempering my basic knowledge of the good and bad in human existence by avoiding encounters that take me too close to the darkest parts. It’s uncomfortable to face.
Our docent began the tour by walking us into the emergence of fear and hate in Nazi Germany through the use of propaganda, public shaming and policies that intentionally created economic and social isolation of Jews, people with mental illness, and physical and mental disabilities. We saw photographs, clothing and letters belonging to individuals whose life stories were changed.
The Museum houses one of the few remaining railroad boxcars of the type used to transport Jews to places such as Auschwitz. It was chilling to turn the corner and see it there, so large in the space but so impossibly small to have held more than 100 people in unspeakable conditions.
We learned about incidents that I did not remember from school, including the journey of the MS St. Louis, carrying Jews fleeing from their terrifying reality across the ocean. The ship’s desperate passengers were refused entry to Cuba and were then refused entry into the United States, forced to go back to Europe.
The Museum also tells the story of heroes and hope — those people in the minority who stood in the way of evil because it was the right thing to do, risking the end of lifelong relationships, even endangering their own lives.
I left feeling struck by the speed at which shocking crimes against humanity can soften into the folds of recent history when we do not dedicate the time for education and remembrance.
Either at home or during our short return commutes on that same afternoon, each of us learned what had been happening in El Paso, Texas, while we were together in the museum.
A young man motivated by hate and fear was killing 21 people, injuring dozens and changing many hundreds of lives forever. Aside from the obvious shock of so much human life destroyed in an instant, the early news that the gunman was targeting Mexicans was an additional sickening punch in the stomach.
We each carry the responsibility of choosing what we allow in our homes, our neighborhoods and our communities. We choose how we talk to people, how we talk about people, how we regard people who are different, and whether we choose to put ourselves in the shoes of others even when we do not understand their circumstances — especially when we do not understand.
This takes practice. It takes a focus on humanity itself, rather than what we could personally gain or lose.
In September, Manatee County School students will attend “Letters from Anne and Martin” at the Manatee Performing Arts Center. The performance is about Martin Luther King and Anne Frank, both born in the same year but 5,000 miles apart. They shared the similar experience of creating good that outlived them, in spite of hatred and prejudice.
Presented by the Manatee County Bar Association’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee with support from Embracing Our Differences, the play addresses injustices that still exist while layering constructive ideas about how intolerance and discrimination can be confronted today. Manatee Community Foundation is a proud supporter of the production in partnership with two of our donors who understand the critical imperative of teaching tolerance.
History is not all in the past. It is something we are each actively creating with our actions today, the choices we make in friendships, our service and how we treat other people.
It’s easy to say, “I know. I know it happened and I know it was terrible.” But here’s the thing: No matter how informed we may be about history, those close, uncomfortable visits into the worst of times are essential.
They remind us of where we cannot go again and give us the courage to prevent another unacceptable outcome.
The last quote I read at the Florida Holocaust Museum belonged to Yehuda Bauer. “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
Learn more about the Florida Holocaust Museum at flholocaustmuseum.org. Starting Sept. 7, the museum will host an original exhibit “Beaches, Benches and Boycotts: The Civil Rights Movement in Tampa Bay.”
Susie Bowie is the executive director of Manatee Community Foundation. Founded in 1998, the foundation has awarded more than $28 million in grants and scholarships through the generosity of donors who live and give in Manatee County and beyond.