Viewpoint: A mission and legacy that endures: A new era for HMREC
April 19, 2019
My mother, Tess Wise, a Holocaust survivor and an indomitable force in Central Florida, founded the Holocaust Center in the early 1980s, along with my father, Abe. Today I lead that same organization as board president at a pivotal time when we have a chance to imagine a new museum, reinvigorate our mission and significantly broaden our impact. It is an extraordinary opportunity and one that we are meeting with thoughtful deliberation, widespread community input and deep respect for our roots.
Our mission is to use the history and lessons of the Holocaust to build a just and caring community free of anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice and bigotry. The Center has always been an inclusive place, collaborative and welcoming and belonging to everyone. The Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy. It was a human tragedy. Creating a better world in its aftermath is not only a Jewish triumph. It is a human triumph. Teaching this has always been our mission. These lessons may be more relevant today than at any other time since the end of World War II.
No one feels the weight of this responsibility more than I. My mother dedicated her life to this mission. But I am encouraged in the knowledge that I don’t lead this effort alone. We have a large, diverse board of directors made up of our community’s finest leaders, each one deeply dedicated to this work. We have a tremendous staff of educators and program directors. We have partners, agencies, schools, city leaders and respected colleagues who’ve joined forces with us. And we have staunch supporters who have invested much more than funds. They have invested themselves.
Recently, we began a fundraising effort and visionaries have invested more than $10 million. An additional $10 million from an Orange County Tourist Development Tax grant is awaiting final approval by the Board of County Commissioners. The goal is to be able to raise $35 million to build a new museum.
For more than 30 years, our current home in Maitland has served as the setting for teaching the Holocaust, giving our community a profound sense of place. But we must acknowledge the physical limitations of the small building, unable to meet the growing demand for more programs and exhibit space. Central Florida has grown exponentially in those same years and is now the world’s largest tourist destination.
A new museum offers the ability to connect with generations of new students in creative ways, where learning about the Holocaust can be more than a brief field trip, but a life-changing experience with ongoing engagement. A more accessible location and a larger facility will also help us reach hundreds of thousands of visitors to Orlando who increasingly seek more meaningful and transformative travel.
So we look to the future and dare to imagine an iconic Holocaust museum at the very center of our region with a central role to play in our education, discourse and civic life.
The intimacy and power of hearing directly from an eyewitness to history will someday be lost. What will remain is a story, one that we tell and retell hoping that each new generation absorbs it and understands the obligation they have. Let’s be bold in telling that story and in passing on the legacy.
Yet, we are taking it slowly. For the past several days, the foremost Holocaust museum exhibit designer in the world, architect Ralph Applebaum, has led various community groups in discussions and exploring possibilities. This pre-planning stage will take a long time. He notably said, “The Holocaust is a threshold into a whole range of issues that help make a better society. And that affects us all.”
I hope every reader of the Heritage will join us in this process and help support what will be the new Holocaust Museum for Hope & Humanity in Orlando. There is a need for every voice, every heart and every mind.
Ellen Wise Lang is the president of the board of directors of the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida.