Guiding teens, Tucsonan finds joy on March of the Living trip

Tucsonan Bill Kugelman and teens from the Western region of the United States lead the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau in Poland on April 19. (Courtesy CJE)

Holocaust survivor Bill Kugelman has been to Birkenau before, once on a previous March of the Living trip in 2006, and as a prisoner of the Nazis. From 1939 to 1945, Kugelman, 88, spent three and a half years in concentration camps, including Birkenau, and two and a half years in the Jewish ghettos of Poland.

The long-time Tucson resident embarked on this year’s journey “to raise curiosity, so Jewish parents will send their kids on the March of the Living,” he told the AJP. “If they want their kids to remain Jewish, to have a spark of Jewishness, they need to know the price of Jewishness.”

Physically, the trip was difficult for Kugelman. “Emotionally, I’m strong enough. I know how to shake off my feelings,” he says. “Basically, I’m there for the kids, to show them what happened.”

Kugelman took part in the MOL with two Tucson teens and 36 others from the Western region of the United States, along with six staff members, including Rabbi Steph­anie Aaron of Tucson’s Congregation Chaverim and Rabbi Daniel Pressman from Silicon Valley, Calif. Their participation on the trip to Poland and Israel, which took place from April 15 to 29, was administered by the Jewish Coalition for Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

In Poland, the group visited Kugelman’s hometown, Sosnowiec, the first time he’s returned since being abducted by the Nazis. Thirty thousand of the 150,000 people who lived in Sosnowiec in 1939 were Jews. Today there are around 225,000 residents, says Kugelman. “Zero Jews,” he adds.

“I showed the kids the Jewish streets where all the Jewish stores were. My parents were in the shoe business; so were my grandparents. I was in the shoe business in Tucson,” he says, noting that his son now owns the business, Alan’s Shoe House.

Kugelman, who has lived in Tucson for 47 years, participated in this year’s MOL at the request of CJE Director Sharon Glassberg. “Every trip is a little different,” says Kugelman. “In 2006, we saw the demolished crematoria. Our guide asked me if we knew what we were stepping on,” which turned out to be pieces of bones.

This year, “the kids saw other things that were just as traumatic for them, piles of hair and babies’ shoes,” he says, adding that he was too busy explaining everything to the teens “to let my feelings get to me.”

At the end of World War II, says Kugelman, “when I came out of the camps I wondered, why did I have to pay that price to be a Jew?” He’s thought about this a lot since, noting that “a lot of New Yorkers try to wash their Jewishness off themselves to fit in. I like to fit in myself. I don’t want to be an oddball, but I wouldn’t submerge my persona. Be careful. Don’t sell out! If you’re a Jew stay a Jew.”

Benjamin Bressler, one of the Tucson teens who went on the trip, delivered a speech, “Not Changed But Enlightened,” at the Hebrew High graduation on May 8. “From what I learned in Poland and understood in Israel, I can proudly say that I have a heightened appreciation of life,” said Bressler, “because I saw the dark depths of humanity, while later seeing a reason to celebrate.”

Kugelman, who has been to Israel many times, volunteered in the Israeli Army twice, once repacking pharmaceutical items and once building movable fortifications, “an invention that only a Yiddishe kup could do,” he says. On this trip, “Ben Ye­huda [Street] was packed with Jews. I said, ‘God bless you and multiply.’ It’s the joy of my life to see so many Jews in one place.”

The mood was different in Israel than in Poland, notes Kugelman. “The kids were jazzed up on the way there so they could let loose. In Poland it was a subdued, depressed situation. All you see is shadows of the past and the Jewish community who once lived there.”

But for teens who participated in the MOL, Kugelman’s efforts were not in vain. “I cannot stress enough how important this trip is,” said Bressler in his speech. “Not just because you are Jewish but because you are human … So if you’re not sure about going on this trip, listen to me, you have to go, in the end it’ll be the best experience of your life.”