Chance Tucson meeting evokes memories of Poland

Adina Bar-El, Ph.D., a children’s book author from Hof Ashkelon, Israel, came to Tucson last week to talk about the power of stories — and ended up discovering tales of her own family’s past.

Israeli author Adina Bar-El, left, with Tucsonan Bill Kugelman (Phyllis Braun/AJP)

On Friday, Nov. 9, Tucsonan Bill Kugelman attended Bar-El’s Heartbeat of Israel breakfast talk at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, part of a TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Seattle, Phoenix) Partnership 2Gether people-to-people exchange. When Bar-El mentioned her grandparent’s candy factory in Sosnowiec, Poland, Kugelman, a Holocaust survivor, realized he’d known her grandparents and had gone to a private Jewish high school with her uncles. He remembered breaking up a schoolyard scuffle between his kid brother and one of her uncles — uncles Bar-El knows only from her mother’s stories, because they didn’t survive the Holocaust. Kugelman also recalled buying candy from the shop run by her grandparents, the Brotsteins, as well as from their rivals, the Mandelbaums — a detail of the family business Bar-El had never heard before. Kugelman even told Bar-el that her “milky skin” was a family trait.

During World War II, Kugelman had been forced into the same ghetto in a nearby village as Bar-El’s family. Her mother, said Bar-El, had often told her stories of events in the town and the ghetto. “My mother told me that one day they took all the teenage girls” to the third floor of the high school and gave them soup, said Bar-El. It was Passover, she said, and her mother didn’t want to eat the soup because it was chametz, not kosher for Passover. She looked over the staircase down to the ground floor, where Bar-El’s grandmother stood. “You may eat the soup, because it’s an emergency,” she told her daughter. “And this was the last time that my mother saw her mother,” said Bar-El, because that day, all the girls were sent on to concentration camps.

“I wasn’t there already. I was already in [one of the] camps,” said Kugelman, who spent more than three years in various concentration camps. This May, he returned to Sosnowiec for the first time since the war, as part of a March of the Living delegation from Tucson (see https://azjewishpost.com/ ?p=15031).

Bar-El’s grandfather had immigrated to Israel in 1939; when the war broke out, he was unable to bring the rest of his family to safety, and few survived. In Tel Aviv, he became a shoemaker — the same profession taken up by Kugelman and his family. Bar-El was so touched by this coincidence, she kept an Arizona Jewish Post advertising flyer for Alan’s Shoe House, owned by Kugelman’s daughter and son-in-law, as a memento of their meeting.

As their talk returned to Sosnowiec and her grandparents’ candy business, Bar-El sighed. “The life before the Holocaust was so sweet,” she said.