by Ethics Department Assistant Professor Joann Vaughan
This past Veterans Day, I and my students from the Seminole campus and online classes of St. Petersburg College visited the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. The visit was sponsored by the St. Petersburg College Applied Ethics Department. When we arrived, we were given the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Mr. Art Sheridan. Mr. Sheridan is a veteran of World War II. He discussed his experience in the Army, starting in 1943. He talked with students about what it was like to be put into the situation of the war in Europe at the age of 17 or 18. Mr. Sheridan was part of an armored division which was sent to Germany during the latter part of the war. His unit fought in Germany, and he and the others in his unit were some of the first Americans to discover and liberate the concentration camp of Dachau, in southern Germany. He explained that he and his fellow soldiers had not known anything about Dachau, and that when his unit found Dachau, it was completely unexpected. He spoke eloquently about how he and the other men in his unit stayed at Dachau for several days to help the survivors, and the impact this experience had on him.
It was a unique privilege to have the opportunity to listen to Mr. Sheridan share his story and his feelings about his experiences there.
After Mr. Sheridan’s presentation, the museum docent, Bob Barancik, spoke to us about his father, who was one of the Monuments Men who found and recovered artwork stolen by the Nazis. Mr. Barancik then led the students on a tour of the museum. We were also joined by museum docent Mr. Irwin Zweigbaum. Mr. Barancik was extremely knowledgeable, and he shared numerous facts and insights. He explained that Germany was a highly progressive society before the war, and challenged students to try to comprehend how something such as the Holocaust could happen in what was such a progressive society of that time. He spoke of the concepts of good and evil. Along with recognizing the horrors of the time, we were also reminded that there were those people who showed great acts of courage and compassion. There were those people who helped others survive, often at great risk to themselves. Students discussed their thoughts on the value of human life and what they believe a person’s ethical obligation to help others should be.
There were many museum exhibits, each of which were informative and moving. One in particular that stood out to a number of students was the Matzevot. The Matzevot are Jewish tombstones which carry information about people, their families, and their towns. The exhibit related to the Matzevot which were in Poland. Before World War II, there were 1,200 Jewish cemeteries in Poland, in which there were several hundred thousand to up to a few million tombstones. Over 400 Jewish cemeteries were lost during the war. Now, only 150 cemeteries have more than 100 tombstones remaining. What happened to the tombstones? After the Nazis occupied Poland, they removed tombstones from the Jewish cemeteries and used them in the construction of roads, walls, and to build furnaces, curbs, etc. Several hundred were even used as grindstones. This practice of removing Jewish tombstones to use for such purposes continued in Poland even after the war as well.
Here are some thoughts the students shared regarding the impact of trip to the museum:
My experience at the Florida Holocaust Museum was a much more impactful experience than I would have imagined. With it being Veteran’s Day and having an opportunity to listen to Mr. Sheridan a WWII veteran speak about his experience overseas was especially emotional for me. I am an Army combat veteran myself and I know how much courage it takes to share an experience like Mr. Sheridan’s with strangers. Listening to our older generations veterans share their stories are becoming rare and I am grateful to have had that opportunity. The museum experience was very interesting, engaging and thought-provoking. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and did a good job of keeping us engaged by asking questions. When he was describing the social climate of Germany prior to the war, I never knew how progressive Germany was before WWII. The photograph exhibit Matzevot for Everyday Use was an impactful exhibit and demonstrated the lengths that people have gone through to wipe out the Jewish culture. I left the museum thoroughly impressed by the exhibits and emotionally moved by the overall experience. Hopefully, I will be able to return to the museum with my kids in the future.” (Robert Kelley)
I was 8 years old when I first heard the history of Nazi’s. At that age, I naively correlated it to a tale of good vs. evil. Walking through the museum wiped the fairy tale semblance to the true horror of history. Fortunately, Hitler’s venom did not manage to touch any of my blood relations, but you cannot help but feel an immeasurable sense of kinship with those poor souls subjected to one man’s evil whims. Seeing the quote saying, “For the Dead and the Living We Must Bear Witness” validated my sense of kinship; also, reminding me, that I cannot forget the extent of power held by one man. The first exhibit that impacted me, made me feel a sense of outrage. I was truly struck when I saw the lists that numbered how many Jews were to be massacred by country. Then, we managed to find ourselves on the second floor where we were shown the audacity of the German’s. They used the tombstones from Jewish cemeteries to construct buildings or worst yet, as a grinding stone to sharpen knifes. While these two exhibits stood out the most to me, the museum as a whole, is a mire [sic] glimpse of all of the horrors endured by these individuals. Needless to say, this experience is one that I will not quickly forget. Thank you for allowing me to attend, I am sure that it will have a lifelong impact. (Haydee Davis)
“I enjoyed the visit to the Holocaust Museum very much, I was surprised to hear we had a guest speaker and that he was a veteran from World War Two. Not only was Arthur Sheridan a veteran he and his unit was one of the first to find a Concentration Camp at Dachau, in southeast Germany. I also know they were not looking for them, that was one of the biggest shocks of the war.
The Holocaust Museum is a memorial and a reminder that this can never happen again. I noticed that the museum focus is not on the war, or political agendas. It has a brief description of Hitler and the Nazi part and their part in WWII. But the main focus is on the Jewish People and what they had to endure….
The gravity of the situation could be quite overwhelming when you realize that this really happened, that people were taken from their home, robbed of their freedom and millions lost their lives, simply because of who they called God. I have much respect for Art, for his contribution to history, humanity, and the cross he must bear. I can only imagine the atrocities his eyes have seen, the battles he’s fought and the resolve a young man from Chicago had to do what was right in the presence of evil.” (Allen Rogers)
The visit to the Holocaust museum was an interesting experience. I cannot single out any event of the day that was more significant than the other. The presentation from Mr. Art, a war veteran was moving. As he recalled his experience in the war, the PowerPoint enforced the mental pictures he drew in my mind. I couldn’t help but sympathize with him as he was brought to tears after recalling being contacted by the daughter of someone he saved. I must admit my mind wondered at that moment over the questions: Is it possible to leave a war unscarred, whether good or bad? Are we more at war with ourselves or others?…
There is an adage that says “there is power in the tongue,” and Hitler was one to prove that. His influence gave him the power to wipe out the past, present and future of many generations. There were only a few who retained ethical and moral stance, and these persons allowed a small portion of the victims to escape. The more important reality is history does repeat itself, for injustice and discrimination has evolved and revealed itself differently. (LaShonda Clarke)