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NAPLES — In the late 1980s, an idea for a school project at Golden Gate Middle took on a life of its own.
It started out simple: After studying the Holocaust, 19 students wanted to create an exhibit to teach others what they'd learned so history wouldn't be forgotten. Called "Out of the Ashes," the student exhibit eventually grew into what's now the Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida.
This year, the museum in North Naples celebrates its 10th anniversary as it looks to continue efforts to promote tolerance and stamp out hatred.
Since officially opening at the end of 2001, the museum has reached more than 75,000 students and attracted more than 25,000 other visitors – locals and tourists curious to see what's tucked inside the small museum in the Sandalwood Square, a two-story office building off U.S. 41, south of Pine Ridge Road.
Students built the original Holocaust exhibit in an empty 650-square-foot classroom at Golden Gate Middle with a $1,200 grant from the Jewish Federation of Collier County.
The exhibit traveled to several other local schools, the Collier County Museum in East Naples and landed at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero before ending up in "cold storage," recalled David Willens, the Jewish Federation's executive director. It was at that point that a group mobilized to bring it out of hiding – once and for all.
Ann Jacobson, a Holocaust survivor and refugee from Austria, turned to some of the friends she'd met in the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce's leadership program to help create a museum based on the student project.
"It just sat in a storage room. So that bothered me. So one day I had the idea that maybe we should make a museum out of it so it would be available all the time," she said.
The first step was moving the Holocaust project to a 1,200-square-foot storefront near the Outback Steakhouse at the Tanglewood Marketplace off U.S. 41 North. The Jewish Federation paid the rent and did the initial fundraising to open it to the public, Willens said.
From there the project evolved into a nonprofit museum, with others stepping in to build on what students started.
Parts of the student exhibit are spread throughout the museum today, including a replica of a camp bunk made by middle school students and a tribute to Anne Frank, a young victim of the Holocaust whose diary is now famous.
By the numbers
There are more than 75 people living in Southwest Florida who experienced the Holocaust first-hand, in some way. The museum has begun to record their stories on video so they’re not forgotten.
The museum targets students, now reaching more than 15,000 a year with its programs in six counties – Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Glades, Hendry and Sarasota.
The local museum’s collection includes about 1,000 authentic photographs and artifacts.
Behind the students' project were two teachers: David Bell, a social studies teacher who taught them about the Holocaust, and Michelle Lee, an art teacher who helped with visuals for the exhibit.
"We never spent class time working on it. It was always lunch time — it was after school and it was on Saturdays," recalled Bell, who retired from teaching three years ago and now splits his time between Naples and Puerto Rico.
On a tight budget, Bell went to flea markets in the Naples area to search for Holocaust artifacts for the student project and that's where he met Homer Helter, a local collector of World War II memorabilia. After finding out what the teacher was up to, Helter loaned him pieces that helped bring the Holocaust exhibit to life.
"Just about every week, he would say, 'I've got something else for you.' We developed a really good friendship," Bell said of Helter, still a museum board member.
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After hearing local Holocaust survivor Abe Price share his powerful tale with Golden Gate Middle students, art teacher Lee felt an urgency to get involved in the school project.
Price, who now lives in Naples, spent six years moving from one Nazi death camp to another before he finally escaped. He lost his parents and more than 200 other members of his extended family to Nazis, including two brothers and their wives.
"It's just not over. Everything that created what happened with the Holocaust is just not over. It's just hit such a head, even still ... just everyone being at odds with each other, just the lack of tolerance," Lee said.
She said the lessons learned from the Nazi slaughter of millions of Jews should never be forgotten.
"The most horrifying part to me – it gives you goose bumps and makes your hair stand on end – is that this was an educated society and this could happen in such a highly intelligent society, that people could turn a blind eye and allow this to happen," Lee said.
The Golden Gate students reached out to survivors and others with ties to the Holocaust, through letters, to collect information and artifacts for their project. Their exhibit included a set of production notes for the movie "Schindler's List," donated by director Steven Spielberg, and a photo of Otto Frank — Anne's father — donated by renowned photographer Arnold Newman. The students also acquired a Nazi flag and uniform, more than 100 books about the Holocaust and photos of prisoners in concentration camps.
Bell made it his mission to keep the artifacts together. They couldn't stay on display at Golden Gate Middle because the classroom they were in was needed for other activities.The Holocaust exhibit was supposed to be up at Golden Gate Middle for just a few weeks, but ended up on display for a few months as word spread about it among parents and others in the community. Curious visitors came to see it during the school day and Bell taught several of his students to be docents so they could lead guided tours.
After the exhibit came down at the middle school, the artifacts went in and out of storage for displays before they became part of the local museum. It hurt Bell to pack them back into boxes each time.
"I would bring them to life and it was like I was burying them again," he said.
If he couldn't find a permanent home for the artifacts, he would have been forced to send many of them back to their owners. Even after the display was taken down at Golden Gate Middle, it continued to grow, with new artifacts continuing to come to the school.
The idea for the class project came from one of Bell's students, who learned about the Holocaust from watching the History Channel on TV. From the beginning, Bell thought it was a great idea.
"Most classes would spend just a day on it," he said of the Holocaust, "and I thought what an injustice – millions that were sacrificed for this and you kind of forget about it?"
He said if the Holocaust isn't taught in the right way, "it just becomes part of the history books." Through the Holocaust museum, students can see history, touch it and feel it, making a lasting impression.
Once in a while, Bell still runs into students who were involved in the class project. The project, he said, created a special bond with those students.
"What I wanted was one day for the kids to be able to bring their kids or grandkids and say, 'When I was in seventh grade, your dad or your grandfather helped build this museum,'" Bell said. "It's something nobody can take from them.".