Philly Faces: Sophie Don

Sophie Don, right, with her bubbie, Shirley Don. (Courtesy of Sophie Don)

At just 29, Sophie Don manages one of the most prominent Holocaust memorials in the United States.

Don is the senior manager of programs for the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, which oversees the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Center City.

For the Cheltenham native, connecting students, politicians and residents to that important history is a passion. But it’s also deeper than that.

Don’s grandparents, Samuel and Shirley Don, were Holocaust survivors who put up some of the money for the statue in the plaza. Upon opening in 1964, the structure became the first Holocaust memorial in the U.S.

Samuel Don died before Sophie was born but wrote a book about his Holocaust experience. Shirley Don is still alive and close with her granddaughter.

“My grandfather wrote about the importance of telling the story,” Don said. “Bubbie said that’s what I’m doing.”

Tell us about your grandparents’ Holocaust experience.

Bubbie was from a tiny town in Czechoslovakia. During Passover of ’44, Hungarian soldiers told them to prepare to go to the ghetto. In May of 1944, she was taken to Auschwitz.

She asked a woman, who was directing people where to go, where their family was going. The woman pointed to the smoke and the crematoria.

In April of ’45, she was on a death march. Then she was liberated by English soldiers on May 3.

We call that her second birthday and we celebrate it every year.

Zayde was in prison by standards we wouldn’t consider criminal. Disobeying Nazi law about whatever he could or couldn’t do in the ghetto.

He was transferred to Birkenau in December of ’42 and then to Auschwitz. He was there until he was liberated.

They met at a displaced persons camp in Germany. He saw her being chased by another boy, so he started talking to her.

He wanted to go to Israel. She was like, ‘I’ve got family in Philly. If you wanna be with me, we’re going to Philly.’

What was their life like in the United States?

They started a bakery.

But also coming here with so little family, and all the survivors that had come here and had lost their families. A community formed among people who were having kids.

Luncheons. Figuring out how to get jobs. Having the kids hanging out.

Then, once they got approval for the statue, it was those survivors who raised the money for it.

Did your grandma discuss this history with you growing up?

Little stories, whether about her time in the Holocaust or recounting times from before.

I feel like every time I see her, something comes up.

Were you interested in museums as a kid?

I would go to museums with my parents all the time. A lot of art museums. Plus the Franklin Institute and science museums.

How did the interest grow from there?

I found out public history was a thing. I started doing internships at museums.

After graduating (college), I worked at the (Philadelphia) art museum. I was a museum educator for family programs and school groups.

Then I went to Brown (University) for a master’s in public humanities. I realized that my joy was being the connector.

This is your first job since getting your master’s. How did you feel once you landed it?

I was pumped. This feels the most in line with my identity that any job could be.

My bubbie is very proud.

Sophie Don, front, at podium, hosts a Kristallnacht remembrance event on Nov. 9 at the Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Center City. (Photo by Joseph Bradley)

So far this year, the plaza has hosted school trips, political speeches and commemorations. How do you view its mission?

Teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to build more tolerant communities. There are so many horrible things that happened in the past, and we see recurring themes.

We all need to be aware of what can happen when people don’t stand up for each other.

Where do you want to go in your career?

This is a fantastic position at this point. My boss is incredible. There’s a lot of support for me learning what leadership in a nonprofit looks like.

Whatever comes next, this position is preparing me to have done something I’m proud of and to go forward.

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