Members of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust have raised millions of dollars for exhibits and lease payments for space in a Sandy Springs cultural center they expected would be built at City Springs. But after comments by city leaders that a final site decision hasn’t been chosen, they want reassurances from the city.

The council has not made a decision on the specific location for a cultural center that would have GCH as a tenant to house its offices and exhibits educating about the Holocaust, Mayor Rusty Paul said during its May 5 meeting.

A grassy area of the City Springs campus at Roswell Road and Mount Vernon Highway was presented to Sandy Springs City Council on April 6 as the preferred site to build the Cultural Center. (John Ruch)

“There has been no decision about the specific location yet. There were three sites that have been looked at, but no decision about where this goes. Or even at this point, if it goes,” he said during the more than one hour of public comment on the cultural center proposal.

His statement came a month after a council workshop presentation that proposed the City Springs location at the corner of Mount Vernon Highway and Roswell Road by City Manager Andrea Surratt. She called it the preferred option over the Bluestone building at the Heritage site or the former Buckhead Motor Works site on Hilderbrand Drive. Existing infrastructure and a preference by GCH were reasons she cited.

The proposal was made in a council workshop and no votes or decisions were made.

The council would need to decide if it wants to have a cultural center and where it would be located. A request for proposals for a design would be published. City staff would rank the bids submitted and present them to council for approval. The public would be able to voice opinions at that meeting during its public comment time. Construction would not start until the chosen design firm returned its work to the city. At that point a bid process could start for a construction firm.

The majority of the comments made in person and via Zoom supported the cultural center proposal with GCH as a tenant and its location on City Springs.

Michael Morris, a member of the GCH who said he personally committed $100,000 to the project and raised $2 million for it, told the council the organization has raised more than half of the funds needed to pay for the seven exhibits and the lease payments to Sandy Springs.

Morris said he raised the funds based on unanimous support for GCH at the cultural center at council’s Sept. 15, 2020 meeting. He said the council told GCH to go out and raise funds at that time.

The council’s vote approved a resolution in support of a cultural center at City Springs with GCH as a tenant.

“I and my investors would like to know if this Council’s vote has meaning and impact. That you charged me to go out and raise the money for this which I did. And now we’re unsure as to whether or not it’s even going to come to fruition,” he said.

Renee Hoelting, a Sandy Springs resident, wanted more transparency in the city’s decisions about the cultural center. She offered support for the cultural center and GCH exhibits at either the property at 151 Hildebrand Drive that formerly housed Buckhead Motor Works that was bought by the city for $1.8 million, or at the Heritage Green property next door on Blue Stone Road.

She agreed that the public does not understand the project. Hoelting said she understood from past discussions that GCH would provide $3 million in advance of construction and then pay rent for its space.

“Now it is the city’s opportunity to give us a clear and transparent accounting of why these changes were made and what it’s actually going to cost the taxpayers in the next four years,” she said.

Before public comment began, representatives of the GCH gave a 10-minute presentation on the state commission’s mission and its plans for space in the proposed cultural center.

GCH Executive Director Sally Levine said its mission is to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, and to promote public understanding of the history in cooperation with the Georgia Department of Education.

“Our critical mission is to educate our audiences about the past, so that they will make choices that will build a future that’s based on democratic values, fairness, freedom and respect. We are dedicated to teaching people of all backgrounds the inherent worth and dignity of every human life in order to prevent future genocides,” Levine said.

GCH member Chuck Berk then gave the first public presentation before council of exhibit plans

Adam Copeland, the chairman of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum also told City Council that his organization is in talks with the GCH on a potential collaboration in developing one of the exhibits on Georgia survivors and liberators.

“The Breman Museum’s mission is to ensure that as many people as possible, have access to high quality Holocaust and anti-genocide education. And we welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the Commission to expand Holocaust education in Georgia,” he said.

State Rep. Shea Roberts (D-Sandy Springs) voiced her support of GCH’s plans at a Sandy Springs cultural center after seeing a presentation on the exhibits.

She said over time the cost of the cultural center will be paid by GCH and its supporters, but families and visitors will get to enjoy the exhibits for free.

“I believe this project will have a profound and transformational impact on our city. I have had the opportunity personally to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and it had a lasting impression on me. But many in our community and state will never have the means to do that,” Roberts said.

The opportunity to step inside a replica of the small hiding place where Anne Frank and her family stayed will help the community step into her story, she said. The stories of Georgia survivors and their pre-Holocaust life with photos at birthday parties and riding bikes will help people relate in a real way.

“And I got to tell you that interactive I’m imagining all our students from the schools coming and getting to have a real conversation with a Holocaust survivor. There’s no textbook that can duplicate that,” she said.

Roberts, like several people who added their comments, argued that the cultural center would not be limited to one culture. More than Jews were persecuted by the Nazis. Others suffered because of their race, political beliefs, religion and disabilities.

“Recently we have seen the importance of standing up against hate and inequity in our country. This will be a universal lesson in humanity, and empathy. And think about the efforts you’ve been making towards improving diversity and inclusion,” she said.

Eric Robin, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, called the GCH’s plans create an opportunity to expand on Holocaust education in a framework to promote social justice, polarity and acceptance.

Former Mayor Eva Galambos considered bringing the Anne Frank Exhibit in the World to the city a crowning achievement, said Gary Alexander, a member of the GCH and chairman of the city’s ethics commission.

Her husband, John, was a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“We owe it to the lady who founded the city, and gave me her wish on her deathbed, to bring Anne Frank to the new City Springs campus,” he said.

The exhibit “Anne Frank in the World: 1929-1945,” had once been on display at Kennesaw State University and at the old courthouse in Decatur. It was moved to Sandy Springs in 2010 as a result of the efforts of the city’s first mayor, Galambos.

Upon her death in 2015 her request was for memorial contributions to be made as donations for the exhibit through the GCH.

Galambos’ son Michael sent a letter that was read to the council. He said it came to the Galambos family’s attention that discussions were being held to move the Anne Frank exhibit out of Sandy Springs.

“This would be a huge disrespect to the memory and legacy of Dr. Eva Galambos, our first lady of Sandy Springs,” he said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis is a freelance journalist based in metro Atlanta.