The center out of a rented office space in the Jewish Federation headquarters in Belltown. Now it is entering its second quarter-century with a new space and a new name. As of this month, the Henry and Sandra Friedman Holocaust Center for Humanity will open to the public as a museum and education center.
On the corner of Second Avenue and Lenora Street, one block away from its former home, the stately, industrial 6,000-square-foot space with offices, a library, and an exhibit area is the result of a $4.4 million campaign. Thanks to a FEMA grant, the downtown building is equipped with a state-of-the-art security system.
Founded in 1989, the center has been serving the Pacific Northwest primarily through educational and outreach initiatives, like the Speakers Bureau, which comprises more than two-dozen Holocaust survivors and their children who visit schools and organizations throughout the region, speaking to auditoriums full of people about their experiences.
It’s these survivors who are behind the Center to begin with. Henry Friedman, who spent a year and a half in hiding with his family during World War II, was shocked when, in the 1980s, he realized that people were still denying that the Holocaust had ever happened. If the Holocaust had never happened, why had he needed to go into hiding? What had happened to all his relatives?
After a visit to Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s, where he and 10,000 other Holocaust survivors lobbied for the creation of a national Holocaust museum, Friedman knew he could no longer stay silent.
“On the plane home,” Friedman says, “I turned to my wife and said, ‘Washington, D.C., is 3,000 miles away. We have to do something in Seattle.’” He began slowly, by reaching out to speak at local organizations. He submitted a proposal for a Holocaust museum, and brought traveling exhibits — including ones from Auschwitz and the Anne Frank Center — to Seattle. “I always wanted to do something worthwhile,” Friedman says of his work with Holocaust education outreach. “This is my ‘thank you’ to America for giving me a home when I had none.”
Friedman has since been joined by a cadre of other speakers, including Eva Tannenbaum-Cummins, an actress from Berlin. Tannenbaum-Cummins tells her story of survival through a one-woman play that she developed in the early 1990s. She, like Friedman, finds great reward in sharing her story with others. “I’m so thankful to stand as a Jewish person and talk to students,” she says. “I’m fortunate that the kids accept me completely.”
Now, the Speakers Bureau reaches 40,000 students a year — not just in Washington, but also in Alaska, Idaho, and Montana. “The Holocaust was the first genocide where the survivors made it their mission to tell their personal stories,” says Dee Simon, the center’s executive director. “We honor those who passed away by taking their message and creating something with it.”
Simon notes that children learn best through storytelling, and having a firsthand account gives the history a personal impact for students. While many survivors are still able to travel and tell their stories to students in person, traveling is too difficult for others. In these cases, the center utilizes technology and other resources available to them, including virtual presentations through video-chat services like Skype.
Currently, only five states require the Holocaust to be included in school curriculum, and none of them is in the Pacific Northwest. The center sends out free teaching trunks filled with books, videos, posters, and other materials tailored to specific grade and reading levels ranging from elementary to high school to support educators in their efforts to teach their students about the Holocaust, and it hosts teacher trainings throughout the state to work with educators on how to best present the Holocaust to their students. The center has an advisory committee of 40 educators charged with keeping the organization up to date with education law and policy. It studies the Holocaust as well as genocides throughout the world and history, and how issues like government complicity and corporate responsibility play into these atrocities.
When the doors formally open this month, the Holocaust Center for Humanity will feature a comprehensive exhibit with chronologically organized sections on topics like pre-war life, ghettos and camps, liberation, and immigration to Seattle.
It was one of only three U.S. Holocaust museums to receive artifacts directly from Auschwitz-Birkenau, including everyday items like combs and shoes dislocated from their owners, most likely from victims of the Hungarian transport in 1944. The center expects approximately 15,000 visitors in the first year, and it will host two traveling exhibits in 2016. It was also granted one of the saplings from the Anne Frank tree, which Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation is caring for until a planting location is decided upon.
Friedman is proud of the center’s work, and hopes that its existence will encourage those experiencing discrimination locally and abroad. “You’ve seen a Holocaust survivor that has risen from the ashes,” he says. “Look at the opportunity America gave to me. No matter how bad today is for you, tomorrow will be a better day. Never give up hope.”