New AHEC museum uses local survivor stories to teach about the Holocaust

Because 6 million is a difficult number to conceptualize, the new Alabama Holocaust Education Center headquarters in Birmingham is focusing on a much smaller group.

While teaching about the overall horrors of the Holocaust, the new center and museum highlights the stories of Holocaust survivors who made their way to Alabama and established a new life for themselves.

The new center will be dedicated at 10 a.m. on May 22 in the former Discovery School space at Temple Emanu-El.

Zoe Weil, director of educational engagement at the center, said the new space demonstrates how “Holocaust history is Alabama history,” and by focusing on the local stories, it brings home events that happened thousands of miles away.

Thus far, the AHEC has documented over 170 Holocaust survivors who were in Alabama at some point following the war.

At a mezuzah hanging on April 23, the center’s new facility was named in memory of Phyllis Weinstein, who was instrumental in the center’s establishment.

David Silverstein, AHEC president, said “Phyllis was an extraordinary person. She made such an impact on this community,” and had a passion for education, especially teaching about the Holocaust.

At a ceremony on April 23, Rabbi Scott Kramer of Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem in Montgomery affixes the front door mezuzah at the Alabama Holocaust Education Center

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council was formed in 1980, and in 1983 Alabama Governor George Wallace began a state Holocaust Advisory Committee, which coordinated the first Alabama commemoration in 1984 at the governor’s mansion. The event has been held every year since then, this year at the State Archives Building.

In 1999, after lobbying by Weinstein, the committee became the Alabama Holocaust Commission through an act of the state legislature, and it is currently chaired by Dan Puckett, a history professor at Troy University. Weinstein chaired the commission for over a decade.

Through Weinstein’s efforts, the BHEC was created as a regional branch of the commission in 2002 after the annual commemoration was held in Birmingham that year. She was founding president, serving until 2016, when she said “at upcoming age 96, I think it is time.” She died in January 2021, two days after her 100th birthday.

Bayer Properties provided space for BHEC at its building, but in 2019 the company announced that it would be relocating, which meant that BHEC needed to find a home. They developed a concept for a new space and started looking around for a new headquarters, including several locations in downtown Birmingham.

in March 2020, as the Covid pandemic shut everything down, Temple Emanu-El decided that rather than temporarily close its Discovery School, it would close the preschool completely. The committee looked at the space where the school had been, and decided that their plan would work in that space. They signed a long-term lease with Emanu-El for the space.

“We started construction and we had not raised the first dollar,” Silverstein said. “But the community stepped up and acknowledged the work we do is so important.”

Silverstein said that when they decided on the Emanu-El space, they visited with Weinstein, because “we couldn’t start this project unless Phyllis blessed it… we had to get the blessing of the queen.”

He added, “I don’t know if she really believed we could pull this off.”

Lynn Raviv, Weinstein’s daughter, referenced her mother’s words at the 2012 L’Chaim gala, the first major fundraiser for the center, where Weinstein was the honoree. She “expressed the hope that the Alabama survivors’ stories would be housed in a local museum along with the (‘Darkness Into Life’) exhibit and their library and other memorabilia.

“This became the dream of many,” Raviv said.

She said the family was “deeply moved and grateful,” for the naming of the center. “I know how mother felt about being honored. Honoring her was in helping others.”

When asked about her interest in Holocaust education, Weinstein would simply reply “it needed to be remembered.” Raviv said that honoring the survivors “gave her energy and direction.”

The agency’s name was changed in 2022 from the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, to reflect how its activities go far beyond just the Birmingham area.

The center trains teachers on how to incorporate lessons from the Holocaust into their classrooms. Over 1,600 teachers have attended group training sessions, and some have been selected to go on national or international seminars. Over 100,000 students statewide have been reached through the teacher trainings.

The center has also coordinated school visits by area Holocaust survivors, or more recently, children of the survivors. The center also coordinates public talks and a “Holocaust in Film” movie series.

Inside the New Space

The lobby has a map of Europe with the pre-war Jewish populations of each country, and how many of them were murdered in the Holocaust.

There is also a display of photos of Alabama’s Holocaust survivors. Weil said the lobby is meant to “turn statistics into people and portray that life wasn’t so different than what your life is like.”

She noted that many students who visit will have very little knowledge about Jews, so part of the lobby exhibit is Judaica items from the collection of Werner Knurr, who fled Aurich, Germany, in 1938 at age 3 after a friendly policeman tipped off the family that his father was set to be arrested.

The Knurrs made their way to Baton Rouge, where his father, Erich Knurr, worked for his sister’s husband, Erich Sternberg. Erich Knurr wanted to go back to podiatry, and could not take the examination in Louisiana because of the language barrier. He was arrested for practicing without a license, then found Alabama was the closest of the three states that did not require an examination for a license. After making connections at Agudath Israel in Montgomery, the family moved there.

Werner Knurr was drafted into the U.S. Air Force in 1961, ironically protecting Berlin from the Soviets. He then became a radiologist, retiring to Colorado after practicing in Pennsylvania and Florida.

The main exhibition area features exhibits expanded from the “Darkness to Life” project. The exhibit tells the stories of 20 Alabamians who survived the Holocaust, through the modern-day photographs of Becky Seitel and paintings by Mitzi Levin portraying their pre-war stories.

The exhibit debuted in 2007, and a traveling version has been exhibited in venues throughout the state.

Much of the installation is flexible, for the possibility of travelling exhibits or additional temporary installations.

Cathy Friedman, vice president of development, said “when I saw ‘Darkness Into Life’ displayed in the new beautiful AHEC, I felt like our remarkable survivors were finally at home.”

The corridor to the library contains two installations. One has the Kaddish and the book “And Every Single One Was Someone” on a pedestal. The book, released in 2013, was designed to give a sense of the number 6 million, by printing the word “Jew” 6 million times — 4800 times on each of 1250 pages.

The second installation salutes Alabamians who were liberators of concentration camps. John Harbert, co-founder of Harbert Construction, was 23 when he was part of a unit that liberated Mittelbau-Dora. J. George Mitnick, from Jasper’s Jewish community, was in a unit that liberated Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald.

The installation also includes a Violin of Hope, a violin that was restored by Amnon Weinstein — no relation to Phyllis Weinstein — in Tel Aviv. The violins in the collection belonged to Jewish musicians, some of whom survived the Holocaust and some of whom were murdered. Many were played by the musicians in the concentration camps, or compelled to play for German officers.

In 2018, there was a series of Violins of Hope events in Birmingham, culminating in a historic concert at civil rights landmark Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Sallie Downs, who co-organized the Birmingham events, had asked the Weinsteins to consider loaning the AHEC one of the violins, and they agreed. The violin that was chosen was one dedicated to the 500,000 Jewish soldiers who fought in the Red Army during World War II.

The 8,000-square-foot space also includes a conference room for educational presentations and other events, AHEC offices and an expanded library, one of the largest Holocaust-related libraries in the region.

Silverstein said the new center will help AHEC “be more accessible to the public as it furthers its mission of educating the people of Alabama about the impact of extremism and the lived experience of antisemitism.”

He said that with the current rise in antisemitism, “this issue is not going away,” and that the dwindling number of survivors makes it even more important to share their stories.