Expanded Holocaust Center Will Preserve Memories as Survivors Fade

Bill Kugelman’s memories of his teenage years are now more than a half-century old, but they have not dimmed. At age 15 or so, he was taken with his family from their home in southwest Poland to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

For Mr. Kugelman, being held at Auschwitz was not the worst part of the Holocaust. It was seeing his brother die of typhoid fever at another concentration camp, affiliated with Dachau. About 3,000 people were sent to the camp at that time, and within months, only a few hundred remained alive, he said.

“We were dying like flies,” Mr. Kugelman said.

Mr. Kugelman, 91, is one of Tucson’s few remaining Holocaust survivors. Forty-five years ago, shortly after he moved here, he and three other survivors planned to create a local memorial, lecture hall and museum to preserve memories of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust History Center, a 400-square-foot building next to the Jewish History Museum on South Stone Avenue, opened in 2013. The center currently consists of a photo exhibition on two walls.

On June 1, construction will begin on a $750,000 expansion, increasing the Holocaust center fivefold to 2,000 square feet. A courtyard memorial garden and covered walkways connecting the center to the museum will create a type of campus.

The exhibitions will include a testimonial wall of interactive digital screens displaying video interviews with dozens of local Holocaust survivors, said Bryan Davis, interim executive director of the museum.

The money for the project was raised in about four months, said Danny Gasch, who served on the fundraising team and is a son of Holocaust survivors. The funds were donated by out-of-state organizations and several private donors, most significantly Wayne and Amy Gould of Tucson, after whom the center will be named.

The expansion plan was unveiled on Wednesday evening at a public reception and presentation at the Loft Cinema. Dozens of community members gathered to listen to the panel of speakers, which included Mr. Davis and Mr. Kugelman, along with administrators, teachers and students from surrounding school districts and the University of Arizona.

The incoming superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District, Steve Holmes, said that it is difficult for students to think critically about history without knowledge of the Holocaust.

A rendering of the expanded Holocaust History Center, bottom right.
A rendering of the expanded Holocaust History Center, bottom right.Noelle Haro-Gomez/NYT Institute

“There are still many gaps about our Tucson community, specifically about our Holocaust survivors,” Mr. Holmes said.

That is where survivors like Mr. Kugelman are invaluable. At the three concentration camps where he was held, he saw corpses being thrown into a ditch. At the Kaufering concentration camp, a subsidiary of Dachau, his main nutrition of the day was a slice of bread, three-quarters of an inch thick, Mr. Kugelman said.

“The taste was like sawdust,” he said. “We were so hungry we would eat wood.”

Mr. Davis said that more than 250 Holocaust survivors from 18 countries have called Southern Arizona their home. Many came, he said, as a result of a coordinated effort by Tucson’s Jewish community to bring survivors from the former Soviet Union.

Tucson also has a political connection to the Holocaust: Karen Spiegel Rothschild, the wife of Tucson’s mayor, is the daughter of two survivors of Auschwitz, according to Lisa Markkula, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

The number of remaining survivors, especially in Tucson, is of course dwindling. Eight years ago, as many as 35 people were engaged in the survivors’ speaker’s bureau, Mr. Davis said. Now only about eight to 12 people are still involved, because many have died or are no longer capable of speaking at events.

With so few survivors available, the need for the Holocaust History Center is urgent to preserve their memories, Mr. Davis said, especially for students.

Since the opening of the first phase of the center, in October 2013, more than 2,000 students have visited, according to a video shown during Wednesday’s presentation.

The center plans to set aside funds to help bring students from surrounding school districts to visit the exhibitions on field trips, Mr. Davis said.

The planning team also aspires to create a small library and study space made up of the volumes of Holocaust literature compiled by the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center, Mr. Davis said.

“It’s a long, long time a coming,” Mr. Kugelman said at the beginning of his speech on Wednesday.

Mr. Kugelman said he planned to donate a large sum of money to help the center continue to expand and preserve the lessons of the Holocaust. He hopes that by learning about the Holocaust, students can develop an increased awareness that can help them prevent hateful actions in the future.

“The ones that are left, we’ll be gone soon enough,” Mr. Kugelman said. “There won’t be anything to remind humanity of what the human mind can create, what they can cause, what horrors they can bring to this world.”