A “Cultural Center” proposed at City Springs would largely house a multi-exhibit Holocaust museum and garden that could double as an official Georgia memorial, according to a member of the state commission that is planning the increasingly controversial facility in partnership with the city of Sandy Springs.

Recent meetings about the roughly $3 million facility proposed at Mount Vernon Highway and Roswell Road have drawn skepticism from many residents and some councilmembers about the appropriateness of the site, the use of public funds, and competition with existing Jewish museums. Missing in the discussion has been a clear description of the center’s purpose, with proposed tenants and locations changing over the past year. Most recent city presentations have cited offices for the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust (GCH); a new home for its exhibit “Anne Frank in the World,” which has long been housed in a Sandy Springs shopping center; a gallery; and, significantly, a possible new home for a yet-to-be-determined state Holocaust memorial that the GCH is required to create.

A grassy area of the City Springs campus at Roswell Road and Mount Vernon Highway is now where the city proposes to build the Cultural Center. (File)

GCH member Chuck Berk revealed in a recent interview that the Cultural Center plan includes a full-scale museum that could fulfill the role of a memorial rather than a single marker or statue. The GCH is planning seven distinct exhibits and features, Berk said. That includes not merely relocating the Anne Frank exhibit, but also creating a full-scale replica of the secret rooms in Amsterdam where she and her family hid for years from the Nazis during the Holocaust before they were discovered and she died in a concentration camp. 

“When we realized that that whole hidden place was only approximately 540 square feet, we said why don’t we build it here? And so we’re going to build the actual hidden place, working with the Anne Frank House,” Berk said.

His personal opinion is that the entire plan by the GCH for the cultural center could be considered as the state’s official Holocaust memorial. But the GCH has not voted on that.

City Manager Andrea Surratt presented a plan on April 6 for the city to build the $2.9 million to $3.3 million, 8,300-square-foot Cultural Center. The GCH would pay back the construction costs by leasing 7,000 square feet of the building for $150,000 annually for 20 years, with a 20-year extension option.

The plan is just the latest version of a concept that, since its surprise announcement in 2018, has changed location, partners and mission. The city has already spent nearly $2 million on the concept, including an architectural design and the $1.8 million purchase of an auto repair shop on Hildebrandt Drive for a site that is no longer under consideration.

After hearing opposition at a recent City Council meeting, Mayor Rusty Paul said the community “doesn’t understand and has “misperceptions” about the proposal.

The city approved a resolution in September 2020 that supported the GCH and its Anne Frank project, set the location on the City Springs property and the GCH would work with the city attorney on 20-year lease terms with options for renewals for its space.

Only after the resolution was unanimously approved did the GCH start fundraising, according to Berk. But now it has raised more than $3 million in pledges or actual donations. The city wanted the funds raised before it would put the building project out for bid.

Berk said its exhibits will be completely funded by private donations to the GCH. Admission to the exhibits will be free.

Seven exhibits planned by GCH

The first exhibit will be a new Anne Frank exhibit, which the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is manufacturing for the GCH.

“We’re going to have them adding to it so that we will put it in perspective of what was going on in Europe, what was going on in the world at that time,” Berk said.

It will include an oral history from Mary Bos Schneider, a Marietta resident originally from Amsterdam who realized she had been a friend of Anne Frank, adding a Georgia connection to the exhibit.

The second exhibit will be a life-size replica of the hidden rooms, or “annex,” in Amsterdam.

“I think the community needs to see what the plan is there, and they haven’t had an opportunity to do that before we make any final decisions.”

Mayor Rusty Paul

The third exhibit will present stories from Georgia survivors and liberators. David Birnbrey, chairman and co-CEO of The Shopping Center Group of Atlanta, has helped get this exhibit off the ground, Berk said.

David’s dad, Henry Birnbrey, was not only a survivor for escaping Germany in 1938 at 14 years old. He also was a liberator as he joined the U.S. Army and served on D-Day.

Another significant part of the exhibit is devoted to William Alexander Scott III, an African American soldier who served in a segregated unit in World War II. His battalion found the Buchenwald Camp and he was one of the Army photographers Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered to take photos of everything so people would know the atrocities happened.

Visitors to the cultural center would be able to listen to oral histories of these survivors and liberators.

The fourth exhibit replicates the National Holocaust Museum’s work to show what Georgians and other Americans knew about what was happening even before the major killings started by displaying newspaper and magazine articles form those times.

Anne Frank in a photo from the “Anne Frank in the World” exhibit. The Sandy Springs Cultural Center is proposed to have an expanded version of the exhibit, including a full-size replica of the secret rooms in Amsterdam where Frank’s family and friends hid from the Nazis during the Holocaust. (Special)

The fifth exhibit was created by the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, which recorded Holocaust survivors’ answers to every conceivable question anyone might want to ask. Through artificial intelligence, visitors can ask the survivors a question and get an immediate reply as if they were having a conversation.

The sixth exhibit will be the Anne Frank Garden. It will feature what Berk said will be only the 12th shoot that grew from the remains of the chestnut tree that Frank observed while hidden away, gaining some hope from seeing birds on the tree and leaves coming up in the spring.

Berk thinks the most important exhibit might be the seventh, which will raise questions with children who visit to learn about their rights and responsibilities living in a democracy.

“What motivations compel the ordinary people to become perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders, rescuers, resisters – because it wouldn’t have happened just with the Nazis with the capital ‘N.’ It happens because all kinds of ordinary people did things or looked the other way for it to happen,” he said.

Councilmembers skeptical about cultural center plans

Councilmembers Jody Reichel and Tibby DeJulio are skeptics of the plan.

Reichal said she supports the GCH’s mission and the message of justice for all people. But she couldn’t support using taxpayer dollars on the cultural center as it was presented.

Reichel said the commission can improve upon existing Anne Frank exhibits like what the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum has on display through donations.

“In my four years in office and my many years being an active member of our community, I have not heard my neighbors and constituents say they want taxpayer dollars to fund a cultural arts center,” she said. She said constituents call for trails, parks, athletic space, sidewalks, help with stormwater issues and smart development in the North End.

DeJulio said he is hearing criticisms from the public and expressed concern that the “cultural center” program favors the Jewish culture alone in a city with a diverse population.

“We are starting to hear from residents,” DeJulio said. “So far, I have received emails and telephone calls from numerous residents in the city opposed to this. I have only received one email in favor of it.”

Paul said he thinks the conversation during the April 20 City Council meeting wasn’t well-rounded because supporters expected to discuss the project in May and did not attend the meeting.

“There’s a perception that we’re doing this with taxpayer dollars, the Anne Frank exhibit is going to be done totally with private donations,” Paul said

He acknowledged the city will provide some property for the cultural center. “But the construction of the building, the payments for that will be done through private donations,” Paul said.

Legislators surprised by opposition, remain supportive of mission

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, who represents part of Sandy Springs, serves as one of the legislative liaisons to the GCH.

“I thought this was all worked out with the City Council and am not sure how it got off track,” she said.

She supports having the GCH and the Anne Frank museum in a prominent location.

“I am hopeful there will soon be an agreement that can move this project forward,” Kirkpatrick said.

State Rep. Shea Roberts (D-Sandy Springs) said she heard from a city resident who attended the April 20 City Council meeting that opposition to the cultural center proposal even came from within the Jewish community.

“I would love to see multiple cultures represented there. But if the Jewish community is somehow not in favor of it, then obviously I would defer to their judgement,” Roberts said.

Residents sound off in opposition, support of project

Many residents speaking at the April 20 meeting were against that location. They said it would duplicate programs offered by the Breman Museum, which is just 20 minutes away from City Springs.

“To visit any Holocaust memorial is haunting, and this one is no exception. Its tenor is at odds with the downtown vibe we’re creating in our great outdoor public art, Concerts on the Green, [and] uplifting performances in our Performing Arts Center, restaurants and shops.”

Resident Linda Bain

Jarvis Levison is an attorney who chaired a Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta committee that produced Atlanta’s William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and now chairs the Breman Foundation, which is among the museum’s funders. In a recent letter shared with councilmembers, Levison expressed concerns that the museum and cultural center would compete for audience and money.

Linda Bain told the City Council that she didn’t think the proposal had been properly evaluated for cost or location when she attended the April 20 meeting at the Studio Theater.

“To visit any Holocaust memorial is haunting, and this one is no exception,” Bain said. “Its tenor is at odds with the downtown vibe we’re creating in our great outdoor public art, Concerts on the Green, [and] uplifting performances in our Performing Arts Center, restaurants and shops,” Bain said.

Many of the people offering comments said spending millions to build a cultural center was not the best use of taxpayer dollars. Instead, they wanted to see more outdoor facilities and even stormwater systems.

Not all were opposed to the proposal.

“I am in support of the Anne Frank project being placed on the City Springs campus, which the council approved unanimously last year. The Georgia Commission on the Holocaust has already raised over $3 million in donations and pledges to pay for their share of the building,” Jerome Silver told City Council.

Mayor, councilmember say residents need to know more about plans

Paul defended the plan to the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods during its annual meeting, held virtually on April 22.

“I think the community needs to see what the plan is there, and they haven’t had an opportunity to do that before we make any final decisions,” Paul said.

City Councilmember Andy Bauman — who until recently served on the GCH — said in an email he has heard from a handful of people who are generally in support of partnering with the GCH and additional gallery space for the city.

“I think the mayor, council and the public should have a good understanding of all the costs (initial and ongoing) before making any final decisions on the direction of the project,” he said.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.