Don and Helene Hirschfeld

T. Donald Hirschfeld has had a few names and a lot of titles in his lifetime.  He was named Donald Everett Hirschfeld at birth, called Toby by his relatives and childhood friends, and known as Don by his Florida friends and colleagues.

The variety of titles he has held are even more numerous:  Developer, Supervisor, Engineer, President, Businessman, Chairman, Philanthropist, Husband, Father, and Grandfather.

Now he is being lauded for his remarkable commitment and accomplishments as a Volunteer and Vice President of the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center (HDEC) which recently relocated from Hollywood to Dania Beach, Florida.

HDEC is the multifaceted non-profit organization that documents and preserves the eyewitness testimonies of Survivors, Liberators, and Rescuers; presents Student Awareness Days with Survivors and teenagers interacting to understand and pass on the universal lessons of the Holocaust and take personal responsibility to end bullying; and is creating the first South Florida Holocaust Museum, with exhibits in English and Spanish.

Friends of Don and Helene Hirschfeld know that volunteering and philanthropy have always been a part of their lives, both in Connecticut and here in Florida.  It was Helene who “discovered” HDEC and played a role in getting her husband involved.  She knew a good deal about HDEC and was impressed with its self-produced collection of thousands of oral histories of Survivors and Liberators. But after seeing a couple of Student Awareness Days for herself, she was hooked!  Helene volunteered to become a Facilitator and has served in that capacity in both Broward and Miami-Dade Student Awareness Days.

Helene’s friend Mara Giulianti, who is on the HDEC Board of Directors and was on its Nominating Committee, asked Helene if she might be interested in serving on the Board. “You should ask Don to be on the Board, not me,” Helene said.  “When he’s on a Board, he gets really involved and you can’t believe the things he gets done!”   Helene told Mara some of the things he had accomplished for organizations up north, including the Connecticut Children’s Hospital, the Hebrew Home and Hospital, the Hebrew Academy, his synagogue, and the property owners’ association he founded.

“She was really animated when she told me about his work on behalf of the Ella Burr McManus Trust for public space,” said Giulianti.  “He was on the Board for 25 years and had raised millions of dollars for it; but, typical of Don, he also found a way to keep the giant Alexander Calder Stegosaurus sculpture safe with the fountain at the foot of it still operative, rather than filled in. I was blown away.”   Mara knew he was impressed with the Student Awareness Days and Oral Histories, and he had been a generous contributor already, so she asked Helene to put in a good word and encourage Don to accept a nomination to the Board.

Don Hirschfeld at the HDEC with Holocaust Survivor Rita Hofrichter (left) and former Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti.

HDEC President Rositta Kenigsberg had learned about Don’s background:  Degrees in engineering and industrial administration and founder of The Hirschfeld Companies, engaged in the acquisition, development, leasing, management, and ownership of multifamily residential communities throughout the United States.

“With all the construction going on and the permitting and the decisions required for building-out the Museum, we really needed Don on our Board, because construction is definitely not my area of expertise,” she said.   Don was not only put on the Board of Directors, he was elected Vice President in charge of the museum build-out.  He immediately jumped in, familiarized himself with everything going on, identified problems and unmet needs, took on every challenge that came before him — and made the creation of the Museum his passion!

Don convinced a supplier he knew to donate the flooring for much of the building.  He found appliances and cabinetry for the employee break/lunchroom at far less than HDEC was being quoted.  When he told Rositta that he would get restroom fixtures donated, she asked what it would cost if they weren’t all donated.   Don told her not to worry about it.    “And because it was Don,” she said, “I didn’t.”

“Don feels deeply about the mission of HDEC and the urgency of completing the Museum before the Survivors are gone,” explained David Schulman, Chairman of the Board.

“This world will never survive on hate — only on love,” Don said.  He points to the Nazis and to the virulent anti-Semitism of the past as a parallel to atrocities and hateful acts today, including cyberbullying and continued racism.  “We need to do more to make sure future generations don’t repeat the past.”

When a friend of the Hirschfelds passed away, Don created a fund in his memory at the HDEC.  The fund, in memory of Ron Wallach, was set up in support of Student Awareness Days, the program that brings together Holocaust Survivors and teens from public, private and parochial high schools to discuss how to recognize hate speech in all forms, including email jokes and photographs, stereotyping, bullying, and other types of malice. “People must stand up to bullying however it is manifested and to whomever, it is directed,” Helene emphasized.  She also pointed to the fact that the first President of HDEC was a Nun, that Father Pat O’Neill is a generous supporter and a driving force on the Board, and that women and men from all walks of life are volunteers, adding, “HDEC symbolizes what can be accomplished when people of all faiths work together.”

When HDEC decided to bring down an acclaimed traveling exhibition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC — STATE OF DECEPTION: THE POWER OF NAZI PROPAGANDA — Don immediately sprang into action.  The Exhibition Gallery had bare concrete and no flooring.  Since having a floor was vital, Don took care of getting the flooring and covered the cost.  He also provided his expertise to get a contractor to smooth over the 26,000 square feet of floor space throughout the entire museum.

“When Don stepped up to cover 40 percent of that cost, other board members joined with him to cover an additional 40 percent.   So the museum was able to get new and improved flooring for 20 percent of the total cost to HDEC,” Rositta noted.   “Don has truly been a savior for the Center.  Frankly, I don’t know what we would do without him!”  But Don says, “My work with the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center is not just for the benefit of the center, but for every one of us.”

STATE OF DECEPTION: THE POWER OF NAZI PROPAGANDA, is produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is being presented by the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center through May 6, 2018.   The exhibition tells the story, in a rich multimedia environment, of how the Nazi Party’s use of Propaganda helped transform it from an obscure, extremist group into the largest political party in democratic Germany.

The Holocaust Documentation & Education Center is located at 303 N. Federal Highway, Dania Beach, Florida.  The exhibition is open to the public through May 6, 2018.  For information, contact the museum at 954-929-5690.

— Contributed by Mara Giulianti