As the child of Holocaust survivors, Harry Heuman ’69 teaches children how simple intolerance and apathy can lead to unimaginable suffering.
(From IWU Magazine, Summer 2016)
Story and photos by PAM WINDSOR
A believer in the power of critical thinking, Harry Heuman ’69 has spent a lifetime
asking questions and challenging others to do the same. The approach served him well
throughout a career in urban/regional planning and land development, and he’s finding
it an effective way to share lessons from one of the darkest times in human history
and make them relevant today.
Heuman is a volunteer tour guide at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. The museum, one of the largest in the country, was the vision
of St. Petersburg businessman Walter P. Loebenberg, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939.
Numerous special and permanent exhibits, displays, timelines and photos help tell
the story of the six million Jews and five million others who were killed.
As a guide, Heuman often works with young people, describing what happened during
the 1930s and ’40s, when Germany began persecuting those of the Jewish faith. It’s
a story close to his heart. His mother and father were Holocaust survivors.
He uses old photos, documents and artifacts like an old railroad boxcar, similar to
ones used to transport his parents and others to the concentration camps, to show
what can happen when one group of people targets another because of their differences
and no one intervenes. He relates it to bullying, something teenagers and young adults
are all too familiar with today, as he talks about the dangers of blindly following
“Bullying has become much too pronounced in our society,” he explains, noting that
while it’s been around throughout our history, technology has made bullying even easier
today. “It’s something people can hide behind with electronic or digital media.”
He points out that the Nazis targeted not only Jews but other minority groups like
homosexuals and the disabled. Six million Jews and five million others were killed
during the Holocaust.
“These are average people working at grocery stores and bakeries,” Heuman says. “They
are doctors and professors, mothers, children playing, just normal people. But they
were different because Hitler and a lot of other people decided that a religious group
should be picked on, then persecuted.
“This is how you begin to educate people,” Heuman adds, “to help them realize that
this happened and — 70, 80 years later — it’s still happening in some places in the
He encourages young people to pay attention to current events, as well as look into
their own lives, their own neighborhoods and their own schools to see where people
are being shunned or ostracized because they’re different.
“I get them to think about what’s going on in the world today.” Heuman points to other
genocides that have occurred even since the Holocaust, encouraging them to think about
their role in society and consider whether they want to be a victim, a perpetrator
or a bystander.
“Thinking critically, what would you do?” he asks museum visitors. “What would you
do if you were in charge of the world when the issue in Rwanda happened, when 800,000
people died between tribes?”
Although many relatives Heuman never knew died during the Holocaust, his parents survived.
The museum has one of the few remaining railroad boxcars used to carry men, women
and children to concentration camps. While many died at the camps, others never survived
“I know my parents went on quite a few trips in these boxcars to different camps,
let alone millions of other people,” Heuman says. “There was no air conditioning,
no windows and no bathrooms. People took care of their natural priorities standing
in place. They died in place, vertically.”
His mother was liberated from Auschwitz by Russian troops, his father from Dachau
by the Americans. Although it was a chaotic time in post-war Germany, his mother was
able to find his father, and they reunited. Heuman was born the next year in a DP
(displaced persons) camp. In 1947, the family immigrated to the United States.
“We came to this country on the converted troop carrier, the S.S. Ernie Pyle. It was my mother, my father, me, a baby carriage, a straw trunk, a wooden trunk and
my father’s violin.”
That violin, now on display at the museum, helps tell part of his family’s story.
As a young man, Heuman’s father played the instrument to put himself through medical
school. His original violin disappeared when he, like so many others, was stripped
of all his possessions before being sent to the concentration camps. When the war
was over, Heuman’s father was given a replacement violin by an American GI. Playing
it helped him cope with the loss of many of his family members.
The Heumans ended up in the small town of Pavilion, N.Y., where his father — after
getting the required training and license to become a doctor in the U.S. — opened
his own practice. They were the only Jewish family in town, and Heuman remembers even
then experiencing anti-Semitism. “I endured some discrimination at that time. I remember
symbols being painted on our house.”
“Knowledge of the Holocaust wasn’t very prevalent in school studies or the newspaper
in the ’50s and ’60s,” he adds.
His parents valued education, and when it came time for Heuman to go to high school
they sent him away, interestingly enough, to an Episcopalian boarding school in Niagara
“Even though I was a good Jewish boy, it was a High Episcopalian, religious-oriented
school, but it had a quality education. So, I went away, and I learned a lot. I learned
a lot about Christianity, and the basis of it, and got very high marks in religious
studies because it was very intriguing to me.”
The school prepared him well to apply at a number of well-respected colleges. He chose
Illinois Wesleyan University. He entered as a pre-med student, thinking he might become
a doctor like his father, but discovered “something just didn’t work for me in the
sciences.” He changed his major to sociology and political science and from that point
on, he says, Wesleyan gave him a wonderful foundation that has served him throughout
He remembers reading a book for class called The Urban Complex written by Robert C. Weaver, the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
and the first African American appointed to a cabinet position. He was riveted by
the subject matter and knew he’d found his chosen profession. It laid the groundwork
for what would become a long and successful career.
It was also during this time that he met a mentor who helped shape his future, Sociology
Professor Maxwell Pape. He credits Pape with providing the foundation to be willing
to ask the difficult questions and challenge the status quo.
“Dr. Pape was constantly challenging me to compare and contrast, to explain my point.
Sometimes maybe he disagreed with me just to see what I would say. I don’t know. I’ll
never know, and that’s okay,” he says with a smile.
After graduating in 1969, Heuman went to work in Troy, N.Y., before later going to
graduate school at Texas A&M. He recalls very early on in grad school abiding by that
tendency to ask questions and take a stand. He remembers one incident that could have
gone either way, when a professor in a “Methods and Techniques” class said something
that didn’t ring true.
“I raised my hand and said, ‘I disagree.’ Then I argued and presented my point.”
A couple of days later, that same professor called his name and asked him to stand
up. Heuman admits he did so, with a little bit of trepidation.
“The professor said, ‘Mr. Heuman, you are correct. I’m revising my lesson.’”
After grad school, Heuman went to work in California, then Illinois, before taking
a job in Hillsborough County, Fla., in 1984.
During the late 1980s, an older couple came into Heuman’s office to discuss an issue
involving their mentally challenged son living in a local group home. Heuman noticed
numbers tattooed on the man’s arm and recognized them immediately as serial numbers
During the conversation that followed, he learned the couple had been at the same
displaced persons camp in Germany.
“They remembered this young doctor, his beautiful wife (my mother) and a young baby
immigrating to the United States. They remembered me as a baby.”
Heuman would go on to volunteer with a local group that helped people with disabilities
like their son.
“Again, they are people who were innocently shunned from society or had different
attributes or whatever, but they’re people who love life. And I have an affinity for
Heuman has worked with a variety of groups that help others. And even before he became
a docent at the museum, he volunteered at area schools to share the history of the
Holocaust. He believes he has a responsibility to ensure the world never forgets what
Sandy Mermelstein, senior educator at the Florida Holocaust Museum, believes Heuman’s
role, and that of other second-generation survivors, is critical.
“The Holocaust was such a vast crime. It’s difficult for people to grasp the magnitude
of the murder of 11 million human beings. But we can understand the life of a single
person. So, when Harry talks about his parents, he is retelling their story. This
is what happened to them. He is a real person, his parents were real people. It’s
not a statistic, it’s not a number.”
She adds that for young people, especially, it’s so important to be able to ask real-life
“The kids can ask him what it was like growing up, do you remember being in a displaced
persons camp, did your parents ever talk about it, how do you think that made you
different from other children?”
Heuman hopes by answering those questions, he can encourage them to ask others of
themselves and the people around them. “The world is not going to be as easy in future
decades as it was in the past. For my children and my grandchildren and everyone else,
you have to ask the hard questions.”
“It’s important to me and many others to make sure the world never forgets what happened,”