New Bowie center will house Holocaust museum’s collection

Fela Shapell, center, a Holocaust survivor, accompanied by her family, cuts the ribbon in front of the eponymously-named center. Photos by Justin Katz

Outside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new Bowie facility on Monday, a crowd of hundreds was hushed as one by one visitors stood to recite names of their family members who died in the Holocaust.

“Hinda Holseker. Avram Holseker,” said Allan Holt, vice chair of museum. These are the names of the grandparents he never met.

Some of the first to recite names witnessed the atrocities of World War II and lived to see the war it end. Each of the 20 survivors in attendance wore a white flower and orange ribbon pinned to their chest.

The 103,000-square-feet David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation and Research Center, which opened its doors this week, will house the museum’s collection of Holocaust-era objects, documents, photographs, oral testimonies and film footage.

The Shapell Center will be open to visitors by appointment, but museum staff will primarily use the building to continue

Holocaust survivors observe a moment of silence for those who perished.

preserving and archiving its continually expanding collection.

Travis Roxlau, director of collection services, said the museum has received items almost daily since its opening in 1993.

“The museum holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of Holocaust-era artifacts,” Roxlau told reporters during a tour preceding the dedication ceremony. “We collected all areas [of artifacts] — not just the Jewish experience — all aspects, all people who were affected by the policies of the Third Reich.”

While the staff can’t stop items from deteriorating, its goal is to slow the process.  After an item is accepted into the collection and processed by conservators, it is placed in a climate-controlled vault. Similar items are stored together, and some, such as wool and silver, must be kept apart. As wool deteriorates, it emits sulphur, which causes silver to rust, Roxlau explained.

What visitors to the Washington museum see represents less than 1 percent of what the museum owns, Roxlau said.

So how many Holocaust-era artifacts will the Shapell Center house? The museum owns 20,168 objects, 102.2 million pages of documents, 111,000 photographs, 16,000 oral testimonies, 1,000 hours of film footage and 111,000 books and published materials in 61 languages.

The collection is expected to double in size during the next decade.

The dedication ceremony ended with the Shapell family cutting a ribbon in front of the center. They were led by Holocaust survivor Fela Shapell, for whom, along with her late husband, David, the museum is named.

Fela Shapell lived in Oswiecim, the Polish city where Auschwitz was constructed. She survived several concentration camps and was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Her parents and two of her brothers were killed in Auschwitz. She moved with her husband to the United States in 1950, and did not return to Poland until 1979. Today, she lives in California.

The Holocaust survivors were the first of the crowd to enter the newly-dedicated center.

Before the crowd entered the building, museum Director Sara Bloomfield made a promise to all in attendance:

“We pledge that this institution is doing everything it can to make sure whoever is here in 50 or 100 years has the same passion and dedication of everyone gathered here today. This is our solemn pledge.”

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