As Holocaust Center eyes expansion, founder's daughter strives to preserve mother's legacy

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Future Mockup of Holocaust Memorial Center

The Holocaust museum needs to raise about $25 million to move and renovate, adding 30,000 square feet. (Rendering)





By Julie Gargotta  |  May 4, 2018 @5:51 PM

MAITLAND, Fla. — As the Holocaust Center in Maitland eyes expansion and a big move into downtown Orlando, Ellen Lang wants to ensure her mother’s legacy lives on.


Ellen Lang wants her mom’s legacy to live on

Maitland’s Holocaust Center eyes expansion, move to Orlando

Lang’s mother founded the Maitland museum in 1980s

“She has faith that people will step up if they know the importance of not waiting until it’s too late,” she said.


Growing up, Lang said that her mother, Tess Wise, didn’t tell stories of her past. Born in a small town in Poland that boasted a large Jewish community, Wise’s family were tanners.


But when Nazis invaded the country, the family scattered. Both of Wise’s parents were sent to camps and died there.


Wise, too — healthy and young — was sent to a work camp but managed to escape.


“There was a young Polish woman who came one day and brought clothing from another young worker who was ill,” Lang explained. “Mom went into the bathroom, changed into this girl’s clothes, had false papers and walked out of camp.”


The rest of the war, Wise posed as a Polish woman.


Years later, Wise began a new life in New York, then Florida, learning English and later marrying. She soon got involved with Jewish organizations and eventually, following her coordination of two conferences on global issues, founded the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida in Maitland in the late 1980s.


“She wanted to be sure that history was taught,” said Lang of her mother. “My mom was the driving force for sure.”


Lang said that her mother didn’t want the stories of the Holocaust to be forgotten, rallying support around her from nonprofits and schools.


“People will tell you, you don’t say no to Tess,” Lang said with a smile.


For the past 30 years, the center has focused on education, sharing stories of not only Holocaust survivors but rescuers who put their lives at risk to save others.


But the Maitland museum was out of room, outgrowing their 7,000 square feet of space.


“When we bring in a class of seventh- or eighth-grade students, they fill up our entire center,” Lang said. “So when other people come, as they have more and more, either from our local community or visitors around the world, there’s no place for them to go if there’s a classroom of students there.”


After months of searching, they found the perfect spot: the old Regional Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Orlando, now vacant.


The city of Orlando signed a Memorandum of Understanding, and the details of the long-term lease continued to be hashed out.


For Lang and her family, it was a proud moment, imaging their museum expanding and reaching more visitors in the heart of The City Beautiful.


“We want to be at the center. We want people to understand this is a broad, universal mission we have,” she said.


This week, the museum revealed renderings of the new look and a shortened name, as well: The Holocaust Museum for Hope and Humanity.


“Those glass shards that let in the light represent the heroes and rescuers,” Lang said of the design, glass piercing through the building’s facade.


The museum needs to raise about $25 million in order to move and renovate, adding 30,000 square feet.


Lang said that so far, they have about $2.5 million committed and are researching grants.


They hope they’ll reach their goal in coming years, then take up to two years to build a museum more than five times their current size.


“It’s exciting to be able to shepherd my family’s legacy, my parents’ dream, particularly Mom’s dream,” Lang said. “To be sure no one forgets, so no other group is ever targeted.”