Visionary leadership for a new era

Sarah Weiss, executive director of the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center

Sarah Weiss, executive director of the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center

Sarah Weiss positions HHC as a significant voice in the fight against hate and inhumanity.

By Marnie Hayutin

When the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center opened last month in its new location at Union Terminal, it became the first museum of its kind to reside in a public, civic space.

Why is that remarkable? Most museums dedicated to Holocaust remembrance are destinations, located near other Jewish resources like HHC’s former location at the Rockwern Academy Jewish day school. But with the opening of the new 7,500-square-foot exhibit in the Cincinnati Museum Center complex, HHC’s mission of promoting tolerance and combating hate now has the potential to reach 1.4 million annual visitors.

The organization credits its young executive director, Sarah Weiss, with providing the inspiration and leadership to expand what was once a low-profile niche nonprofit to the broader Cincinnati community. When she joined the Holocaust & Humanity Center nearly 15 years ago, it was a small organization that taught lessons of the Holocaust primarily to student groups and educators. Today, partnering with libraries and universities, and enlisting speakers from all over the world, HHC has become a significant voice in the fight against hate and inhumanity.

Detail of the lobby’s 60-foot, graphic-novel-style mural, which features stories of WWII Holocaust liberators and survivors with local ties. The artist is Keith Neltner,  who created 25 vignettes in all.

Detail of the lobby’s 60-foot, graphic-novel-style mural, which features stories of WWII Holocaust liberators and survivors with local ties. The artist is Keith Neltner, who created 25 vignettes in all.

Visionary approach

“For a person her age and experience, she’s quite a visionary,” said Kathy Brinkman, member and immediate past chair of the HHC board. “She adopted the original purpose of the organization and took it to a new level, where it will reach so many more people.”

Originally from Youngstown, Weiss, 36, came to HHC through Public Allies, an AmeriCorps service program she entered after graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 2004. Drawn to its universal goals of promoting tolerance and inclusion, as well as the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people, she ultimately joined the staff full time. Since then, she has devoted her efforts to ensuring the work of HHC is more than a history lesson – that it serves to change the hearts and minds of the community and encourages people to challenge their prejudices.

“I think what pushes her forward is the fact that she really does want to change the world for the better,” said Jodi Elowitz, HHC’s director of education. “She’s committed to making our community a better place.”

But Weiss likely would say it’s her own world that’s been changed – by the relationships she’s enjoyed with the survivor community, with the World War II veterans who were eyewitnesses to the Holocaust, and with the dedicated staff and volunteers who work alongside her.

“I always say it’s really a privilege and an honor to do what I do,” Weiss said. “It’s exhilarating to be around people who are all committed to this mission.”

Building relationships, strengthening bonds

Weiss’ bond with survivors is immediately apparent, colleagues say, noting she seems to have an old soul that connects with this community on a profoundly deep level. They are family to her; she visits them in the hospital when they are ill and assists where she can when someone is struggling.

This bond came to life in the new HHC exhibit, where she steadfastly ensured the design would reflect the voices of the Cincinnati survivors. Visitors enter and exit through a hall featuring a graphic novel-style mural of the survivors whose stories are showcased in the galleries. The goal is that, upon returning to the hall at the end of the exhibit, visitors will recognize the images and depart with a feeling of connection.

Weiss’ rapport with her board members and staff is no less remarkable, Brinkman said. She marvels at Weiss’ ability to engage her diverse board, bringing them fully into the process of expanding to the new location and eliciting everyone’s best work. With exhibit designers and fabricators, Brinkman said, Weiss managed the construction artfully, championing the overarching vision but also navigating and intelligently addressing challenges as they arose.

“She is so good at getting the best out of people,” Brinkman said. “She immediately gets people’s respect. As young as she might be, it’s not a factor. They are ready to be led by her and work with her and collaborate with her.”

The work itself often is made more challenging by the sheer intensity of spending each day confronting one of the darkest eras in world history. And, Weiss said, she is constantly cognizant of the reality that, in another decade or so, we no longer will have living survivors and eyewitnesses. Still, Weiss said, she generally feels uplifted by the work of HHC.

“The survivors have taught me so much,” she said. “Most of all, what I’m surprised to say that I’ve learned from them is to have hope, and that we all have the ability to make a difference. Their lives have been examples of resilience, of hope, and of the ability of the human spirit to go on and to rebuild.”

Detail of “Massacre”: The art installation is an interpretation of an historical photo of a Nazi firing squad engaged in a mass shooting. The mosaic was constructed using tens of thousands of bullet casings. This genocide by mass shooting, which killed approximately  2 million Jews, has been called a “Holocaust by bullets.”

Detail of “Massacre”: The art installation is an interpretation of an historical photo of a Nazi firing squad engaged in a mass shooting. The mosaic was constructed using tens of thousands of bullet casings. This genocide by mass shooting, which killed approximately 2 million Jews, has been called a “Holocaust by bullets.”

Leading a museum with a message

From here, Weiss looks forward to welcoming more visitors to the Holocaust & Humanity Center – thousands more than it was able to reach in its former location. She hopes the exhibit will quickly earn a place among Cincinnati’s other celebrated, nationally recognized museums.

HHC’s message of taking action against hate is needed now more than ever, she noted. The new space opened just a few months after a gunman fired on Saturday morning worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, an attack that has been called the most heinous assault against the Jewish community in American history.

“I’m saddened that, in my 15 years or so with the organization, our mission has grown more relevant instead of less relevant,” Weiss said. “Certainly, there’s always going to be a place to remember and commemorate the past, but our hope is that someday the lessons of the Holocaust could be learned.”


Planning a visit

Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, Cincinnati Museum Center, Union Terminal.

Admission: $10. Check website for hours. holocaustandhumanity.org


More with Sarah Weiss

Most meaningful artifact among the HHC exhibits for you, personally? 

Everything, but I think I will say the “mezuzah,” a special item that adorns a Jewish home that was donated by Stephanie Marks. Her mother took the item from their home as they fled from the Nazis and kept it with her upon arrival to Cincinnati Union Terminal, and in her wallet for the rest of her life. In a small object, it offers so many powerful lessons about survival, faith and home. It will be the first artifact a visitor sees when they come into the lobby.

A book or film that changed your life? 

So many. Most recently, the book “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi

Favorite quote? 

“Everybody, every human being has the obligation to contribute somehow to make this world better.” Edith Carter, local Holocaust survivor

Go-to activity for stress relief?

Exercise at the JCC and Pure Barre

Favorite place downtown for a coffee break? 

Currently, the furthest I can get is the new Cup and Pint in Union Terminal.

A place you’d like to visit, but haven’t yet? 

The towns where my grandparents lived before the Holocaust

Your favorite moment of 2018?

Participating in Leadership Cincinnati

Someone who inspires you? 

Holocaust survivors

 

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