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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


 

February 8, 2019  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Loebenberg’s vision lives on in Holocaust Museum

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press


Walter Loebenberg attends an early exhibit at the original Holocaust museum site at the Pinellas JCC facility in Madeira Beach in 1993. Walter Loebenberg attends an early exhibit at the original Holocaust museum site at the Pinellas JCC facility in Madeira Beach in 1993. Of the many accomplishments by Walter P. Loebenberg, perhaps his greatest was the founding of the Florida Holocaust Museum, a project and dream he shared with his wife, Edie, but one with unpretentious aspirations at the outset.

The local Jewish community lost one of its visionaries when Loebenberg, 94, died at his home in St. Petersburg on Jan. 29, nearly nine years after Edie’s passing.

“With unwavering modesty and humble beginnings, they dreamt of a space that would house a small poster exhibit about the Holocaust, a place where children could come to learn from one of the darkest periods of mankind’s history. Today the dream stands as one of the finest Holocaust museums in the world,” the museum wrote in 2000 in its presentation of its highest honor, the To Life Award, to the couple. The annual award has since been named the Loebenberg Humanitarian Award.


At the grand opening of the Holocaust Museum in 1998. From left, Walter Loebenberg, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Edie Loebenberg and then museum board chair Amy Epstein. At the grand opening of the Holocaust Museum in 1998. From left, Walter Loebenberg, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Edie Loebenberg and then museum board chair Amy Epstein. That desire for a small place for poster displays was transformed into the impressive museum we have now, with much of the vision, hard work and funding coming from the Loebenbergs.

From its modest beginnings, the St. Petersburg museum has become one of the largest Holocaust museums in the country. It maintains a permanent collection of Holocaust artifacts, art and historical documents, as well as a venue of traveling exhibits that draw thousands of visitors each year. Its programming includes initiatives to teach the inherent worth of human life in order to prevent future genocides and educational program such as its “teaching trunks, ” which are sent to schools throughout the country.


Walter Loebenberg at age 5 or 6 in his hometown of Wa¨chtersbach, Germany. Walter Loebenberg at age 5 or 6 in his hometown of Wa¨chtersbach, Germany. “Walter Loebenberg was loved and highly respected by everyone he met and by the community. He was private and strong, but possessed a deep, abiding kindness and selflessness. His children and grandchildren adored him, his peers held him in high esteem, and the community was proud to call him its own,” said Elizabeth Gelman, executive director of the museum.

Loebenberg initially rented space at the Pinellas County JCC in Madeira Beach for his poster displays in 1992. Soon after, he acquired an original boxcar of the type used by the Nazis to transport over 100 people at a time to concentration camps. He had it shipped here and placed on the grounds of the JCC. It was later transported to downtown St. Petersburg before the museum opened at its current location at 55 Fifth St. S., in 1998, where it remains the centerpiece of the museum’s permanent display.


Walter Loebenberg acquired this Nazi-era boxcar, which remains a centerpiece of the Florida Holocaust Museum’s permanent exhibit. Walter Loebenberg acquired this Nazi-era boxcar, which remains a centerpiece of the Florida Holocaust Museum’s permanent exhibit. “It’s very poignant that Walter passed just one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” said Michael Igel, board chair of the museum. “It is because of people like Walter that we can be certain that those who suffered and died in the Holocaust will always be remembered.”

Loebenberg was born on May 22, 1924 in Waechterbach, Germany, and in 1936 his family moved to Frankfurt. In a 1990 Tampa Tribune article, Loebenberg told of being a repeated target of anti- Semitism:“When I went to school prior to 1939 in Germany, there was a time where every afternoon, if my parents or somebody didn’t pick me up, I’d get beat up. Every day.”

When telling his life story to museum officials, he recalled the day when he was a 14-year-old apprentice at a bakery and he went to work in the morning only to find the store burned to the ground and his synagogue demolished – all part of the Nazi-organized night of violence and destruction against Jews known as the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht, on Nov. 9, 1938.

Later that day thousands of Jews, including Loebenberg, were rounded up by SS troops to be sent to a concentration camp. Loebenberg was among about 10 teens pulled aside by soldiers and made to sweep up the hall where they had assembled the crowd of Jews. Afterward the troops escorted the teen boys through a crowd of some 1,000 people, mostly women, who jeered at the boys. “They wanted to tear us apart, these women,” Loebenberg said. He and the other boys ran for their lives when the troops left them in the crowd.

Fearing things would get worse, the Loebenberg family booked passage to Cuba. In order to leave Germany, they had to surrender nearly all their possessions and were allowed only $6 per person. The Loebenbergs were supposed to be on the ill-fated MS St. Louis, but changed their tickets to board another ship. Cuba denied them entry, and the family wound up in New York. He arrived at Ellis Island on his 15th birthday, May 22, 1939, where the family was detained for four months before finally being allowed to enter the country legally, although labeled “hostile aliens.”

The family moved to Chicago and Loebenberg gained U.S. citizenship in 1943 while in the U.S. Army. He served in the Battle of the Bulge and was personally presented with a Bronze Star medal by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for taking part in an interrogation that yielded information saving the lives of many soldiers.

He met and married Edie, after returning from the war to Chicago, and began a business career spanning seven decades, which included constructing, managing and owning healthcare facilities.

In 1969, Walter and Edie moved to St. Petersburg, where they devoted themselves to family and community, becoming significant philanthropists. They supported more than 15 organizations in the Tampa Bay area including Congregation B’nai Israel and Temple Beth-El, both in St. Petersburg, as well as giving assistance to individuals. Leobenberg typically gave privately, sharing the details of his philanthropy only with his family.

On the national scene, Loebenberg was past chairman of the board of governors of the Anne Frank Center USA in New York. He also has been involved with the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, donating more than $10,000 in 1990 toward restoration efforts of the facility.

Among this many honors he received were the Key to the City of St. Petersburg, the Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund, the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the JCC, and the Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts Award.

“The fortitude to survive his early years helped Walter achieve success, but he never forgot those who did not survive. Through his efforts, a living memorial to those who suffered and perished became today’s Florida Holocaust Museum,” museum officials said.

Loebenberg was predeceased by his wife of almost 62 years, Edith, and is survived by three children, Sandy L. Mermelstein and her husband Kent “Scooter” Bontly, Michael J. Loebenberg and his wife Terry, and David A. Loebenberg; eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at the Museum at a date to be soon announced. The family requests memorials to the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 5th St. S., St. Petersburg, 33701.


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