FGCU's Holocaust exhibit goes virtual, Q&A planned with author who inspired work
Editor's note: This story has been updated to say the Facebook Live Q-and-A with author Martha Hall Kelly is set for 3 p.m. Thursday.
As a self-described “book nerd,” Melissa Minds VandeBurgt knows the power of a good read.
She is head of archives, special collections and digital initiatives at the Wilson Bradshaw Library at Florida Gulf Coast University. Her team’s latest and “most successful” exhibit — which is now accessible online due to COVID-19 closures — honors the courage and hope of Holocaust survivors who escaped Ravensbrück, a Nazi-era concentration camp that was liberated through the little-known White Bus Rescue launched by the Swedish Red Cross.
Her inspiration came from bestselling novel “Lilac Girls," written by Martha Hall Kelly.
The story struck a chord with VandeBurgt, who urged everyone on her staff to read the book.
That was in January 2019. Ten months later, she and a crew of undergraduate and graduate-level students were immersed in a research project, where they traveled to Germany and Sweden to learn firsthand from experts and survivors about the camp and the Swedish mission to save more than 15,500 people.
While overseas, the team borrowed artifacts like uniforms, letters and pictures — items that had never been seen in the United States before the exhibit opened earlier this year at FGCU.
Pictures of the research group made their way to the author of “Lilac Girls,” who then reached out to the archive team at FGCU when the exhibit, called “To Life: The Liberation of Ravensbrück,” opened in January.
“For a book nerd, it was like this woman who had sent me on this journey waved to me on Facebook, and I ran around squealing in the office: ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ said VandeBurgt, who likened it to people meeting a Hollywood celebrity. “Of course, the grad students were like, ‘You respond.’”
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Soon a plan was hatched for Kelly to visit the exhibit as part of her spring book tour, which coincided with the tail-end of the exhibit that was set to close May 2.
But with the growing concerns of COVID-19 and social distancing protocol, VandeBurgt made the “heartbreaking” decision to shut down the exhibit ahead of schedule.
“We were quickly trying to figure out how to keep people safe because the majority of the people coming through are already in that age group and we were so concerned,” she said.
Closing the exhibit meant canceling tours for Holocaust survivors, including 80-year-old Steen Metz.
He and his family were set to visit the Fort Myers exhibit with his family on April 15 — the 75th anniversary of when he “stepped foot from the concentration camp onto the white bus that rescued him,” VandeBurgt said.
Whenever a survivor or their family contacted the archive team about the exhibit, staff would find their names on the transport logs they recreated on one wall of the exhibit. It showed more than 15,000 names of survivors, including that of New York City-born Holocaust survivor Elsie Ragusin Azzinaro.
Just after the exhibit opened, the 98-year-old toured the exhibit.
She and her father had been arrested by the Nazis while on a trip to Italy — her father died in Auschwitz, and she was later transported to Ravensbrück, where she was tortured with medical experiments.
Azzinaro said the exhibit is important to ensuring nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.
“We’re human beings — we should love each other, not destroy each other,” she told The News-Press during an interview.
Although "heartbroken" by the closure, the staff shifted its attention online, working tirelessly for six weeks to build a website to house the artifacts and stories of the women featured in the physical exhibit.