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New museum brings Holocaust story home to Seattle

The Holocaust Center for Humanity recently unveiled its new museum in Seattle. Credit: Holocaust Center for Humanity

A suitcase, with its mundane contents laid out, is on display at the Pacific Northwest’s first Holocaust museum: the shoes of a family, a comb, eyeglasses, a toothbrush and a tin of cold cream. The identity of their owners is unknown, but they were likely the few belongings of a Hungarian family deported to Auschwitz in 1944. The things they brought with them are at odds with the horrors that were being perpetrated on Jewish families in Nazi Germany and countries it occupied.

For most of these families, their experience ended in Auschwitz. But, by a mixture of courage, luck and the charity of others, some survived.

This Sunday, the Henry and Sandra Friedman Holocaust Center for Humanity will open to the public. Since 1989, the Holocaust Center for Humanity has educated young people about the lessons learned from the Holocaust by coming into the students’ classrooms. The new, $3.4 million center combines a museum, classroom and office space, creating a place where students as well as the public can come to learn. 

Founded by survivors living in the area, the center focuses on the stories of those locals. Among them is Henry Friedman, whom the new center is named after. Friedman, a retired business owner, was hidden for 18 months in the barn of a young Ukrainian woman, narrowly avoiding being sent to a death camp. Stories of compassion like this are told to students and visitors.

“The impact of the story is universal. Through the lens of the Holocaust, we teach young people to take action against injustices as small as bullying,” Richard Greene, the center’s Director of Community Engagement, said.

Until the new center at 2045 Second Ave. in Downtown Seattle was built, the Holocaust Center for Humanity operated out of its own offices in the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle building. The center has worked with middle- and high-school students around Washington state by providing boxes of teaching materials, visits from survivors, historical artifacts and teacher training.

“The most important feature of the space is the museum,” Greene said. “It allows us to display the large collection of artifacts we’ve had for years, but were unable to show entirely.”

Among that collection are the contents of the suitcase of someone deported to a camp, donated by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The center is one of only three museums in the United States to receive artifacts from that museum. 

There is an element of student participation around the center. Concrete pillars are covered in notes left by students, and projects from art contests are displayed next to the center’s large collection of books. The center is geared toward middle and high-school students, but is open to all. The center expects around 16,000 visitors from all walks of life in its first year of operation. Despite the new space, they center’s staff of eight will also continue to teach by going to classrooms.

Beyond the opening, the center has other events coming up. This March, the center will receive an exhibit from The Anne Frank Center in New York. Next fall, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will bring an exhibit about medical experiments and ethics to the center.

The center will be open beginning next week on Oct. 18, 21 and 25 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then every Wednesday and on the first and third Sundays of the month. Reservations are required; details are here. (Appointments can also be arranged Monday through Friday.) There is a suggested donation of $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors.

Executive Director Dee Simon has found the center to be a positive force for bringing the Jewish community in Seattle together.

“When I moved to Seattle I was looking for places to connect. I thought that working with other children of survivors would be a great way to do that,” Simon said.

As time goes on and storytellers get older, the center has fewer survivors to talk about their experiences. With this new space for the public, the center hopes to find new ways of telling and preserving stories for students and the public. Second-generation survivors like Simon are working to preserve those stories of their parents.

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