The David and Fela Shapell Family:  Securing the Past, Building for the Future

Holocaust survivors David and Fela Shapell and their family have made an exceptional $15 million gift to help ensure the permanence of Holocaust memory, truth, and relevance. “We are deeply grateful to the Shapell family for this outstanding leadership commitment,” said Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. “The David and Fela Shapell Family Collections and Conservation Center is the most important building project the Museum will ever undertake. This state-of-the-art facility will house the institution’s most precious asset—its unparalleled collections that not only document the Holocaust but serve as the Museum’s most powerful educational tool,” explained Bloomfield.

For David and Fela, Holocaust remembrance and education has been the major effort of their lives. Survivors from Poland with vastly different backgrounds and stories of survival—for Fela a path through concentration camps that would end with her liberation from Bergen-Belsen; for David a harrowing flight to evade the Germans that would lead to Soviet labor camps and conscription in Polish units attached to the Soviet Army—they have endured losses few can imagine and lived a history the world can never afford to forget. David and Fela did not meet until after the war, in Germany. They married in 1949 and immigrated to America so that their first child would be born in a land of hope. After a short period in Detroit, they made their home in Los Angeles, where David, along with his brother Nathan Shapell and brother-in-law, Max Webb, built one of the most successful real estate development companies in California.

The Shapell family tries to visit Poland annually. Courtesy of the Shapell Family

In 1979, at the urging of their children, Rochelle, Benjamin, and Irvin, David and Fela made the first of many difficult trips back to Poland. Their children knew it was imperative to fully understand their family’s history in order to pass it on to future generations. That first trip was a life-altering experience for parents and children alike. They journeyed to David’s hometown of Wolbrom, a small shtetl that, like hundreds of others, was completely destroyed. Their focus was the mass grave where David’s father was murdered after being marched from the synagogue where he was praying. What they found at the only known burial place for family members was a neglected and desecrated site. David and Fela spent years restoring this site and remain dedicated to preserving it and commemorating its victims. Nearly every year since—for more than 30 years—a Shapell family member has gone to Wolbrom and to Auschwitz, where Fela's parents and brother are believed to have perished, to say Kaddish and light candles. Amid the unrelenting challenges to memory, multiple generations of this family are committed to safeguarding it.

With Holocaust denial on the rise, one of the most important challenges of our time is to amass and preserve the evidence now, while it is within our grasp, so that it will be within humanity’s grasp for all time. In a race to rescue at-risk evidence, the Museum collection is expected to double in the next decade. These materials help visitors to the Museum and its traveling exhibitions as well as millions of visitors to the Museum website connect to the Holocaust in a human way. This irrefutable evidence of the Holocaust demands state-of-the-art technology and surroundings.

Long-time supporters of the Museum, the Shapells have been major funders of its teacher training programs. The new David and Fela Shapell Family Collections and Conservation Center will not only safeguard what will be the collection of record on the Holocaust but will impact the accessibility to this collection for teachers and scholars across this country and around the globe.

“By preserving and displaying the physical evidence of the Holocaust, we enable the millions silenced by evil to bear witness forever to the truth of what happened to the Jewish people.” –David and Fela Shapell

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