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Pittsburgh Holocaust Center finally finds permanent home

| Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
A Nazi symbol that was once part of a locomotive train is now in the Pittsburgh Holocaust museum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. It is one of numerous items in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Hannah Wilson (left) and Rachel Herman look through items in storage that make up the Pittsburgh Holocaust museum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The items are in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Hannah Wilson (left) and Rachel Herman look through items in storage that make up the Pittsburgh Holocaust meuseum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The items are in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Photographs that appear to show the destruction of a concentration camp are in the Pittsburgh Holocaust museum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. They are some of the numerous items in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
A German passport with a large J to clearly identify a Jewish person, is now in the Pittsburgh Holocaust museum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. It is one of numerous items in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
A prayer book for a U.S. soldier of Jewish descent is now in the Pittsburgh Holocaust museum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. It is one of numerous items in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
A box containing Nazi flags, arm bands, and swastikas are stored in boxes for the Pittsburgh Holocaust museum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. They are some of the numerous items in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
A kapo armband and several Nazi flags are part of the Pittsburgh Holocaust meuseum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The arm band would have been worn by a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp who had duties and tasks as he supervised his fellow prisoner.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Rachel Herman and Hannah Wilson look through items in storage that make up the Pittsburgh Holocaust meuseum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The items are in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Rachel Herman looks through items in storage that make up the Pittsburgh Holocaust museum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The items are in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Rachel Herman looks through items in storage that make up the Pittsburgh Holocaust museum collection Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The items are in storage until the museum finds its permanent home.

Hannah Wilson closed the lid on a bulky cardboard box and shivered as the threadbare, crimson folds of a fraying Nazi flag disappeared.

Instinctively, the 23-year-old Holocaust and genocide studies major backed away, wiping her hands.

“I get why people don't want to see this stuff,” Wilson said. “But that's why we preserve it. We need to remember how awful we can be.”

Established in 1981, the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center is preparing to move out of a Strip District storage facility and into an exhibition space of its own for the first time.

This spring, the 5,300-square-foot building in the Squirrel Hill Plaza on Hazelwood Avenue in Greenfield will house tattered letters and passports, old clothing, flags, photos, daggers, maps and mementos from the lives of men and women affected by the atrocities committed by Germany's Third Reich.

More than that, it will celebrate their stories.

“The approach has changed,” said Holocaust educator Rachel Herman, 34. “People had lives before the war. People had lives after the war. Those lives and their stories are so much bigger than this horrible thing that happened to them.”

Brandon Blache-Cohen, 31, of Squirrel Hill feels personally responsible for his grandfather's story — a Jewish carpenter born on Dec. 25.

His family lost 22 relatives in the Holocaust, but Joseph Werner Cohen survived, he said.

“Survivors aren't here to tell us what happened anymore, so it's up to the second and third generations to talk for them,” Blache-Cohen said. “Sharing my grandfather's experience will be one of my most important duties I'll ever have.”

Since its inception, the Holocaust Center has been dependent on other organizations to provide administrative, exhibit and program space. In 2011, staffers moved to temporary offices donated by the Jewish Federation in Oakland. The space was too small for exhibitions or group visits, so educators unpacked an item or two every time for different educational programs across the region.

Architect Paul Rosenblatt, principal and founder of South Side-based Springboard Design, envisioned a multi-purpose space that celebrates survivors while acknowledging the delicate nature of genocide education.

“The new center will be open and bright, full of texts and images with lots of information and engagement opportunities,” he said. “We wanted to put as much emphasis on creating a pillar of the Squirrel Hill community as we're putting on the artifacts inside.”

Plans for the first level allow for a World War II timeline; space for permanent and temporary exhibits; classroom space for up to 45 people; a memory room for contemplation and capturing stories from those with links to the Holocaust; and a research area with computers to help visitors explore records, testimonies and other materials. The building's lower level will accommodate office, administrative and storage space.

“Because of the material and the changing audience, it has to be dynamic,” Rosenblatt said. “Plenty of people may be repelled from Nazi paraphernalia, so we tried to give educators the freedom to keep the more troubling materials at different eye levels or out of sight altogether until a guide is ready to show you.”

Taken as a whole, the Holocaust can be overwhelming, executive director Joy Braunstein said.

“It took two and a half years to find the right place for us to unpack,” she said, “but we've finally found our home.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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