Updated May 31, 2013
What’s not being told in posters depicting the Holocaust? That’s the question Bryan Davis, director of the Holocaust Education and Commemoration Project of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, asked students at the Tucson Magnet High School gallery on May 6 to ponder.
The poster exhibit, “Echoes of the Holocaust,” was produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles; the posters belong to Tucson Holocaust survivor Bill Kugelman. After more than 60 students viewed the exhibit, which shows the horror of the concentration camps, including people being shot on the spot and the dehumanization of life in the barracks, Kugelman told the rapt audience about his time in forced labor camps and at Auschwitz.
In his introduction, Davis, who’s also director of the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said, “Let’s break the framing of the Holocaust” as only a Jewish tragedy. What can we learn about genocide, the inside history of World War II or a government that targeted minors? This exhibit is “revealing and illuminating about history and the present,” he said. The students — many of whom were Mexican-American — seemed especially interested when Davis connected the aftermath of World War II to current immigration policy.
“We address all of this history today,” said Ismael Arce, a social studies teacher who teaches a U.S. history class from a Hispanic perspective. “A lot of people don’t understand living in these lands. People make you think you don’t belong here, when your ancestors have lived here for many generations. Scapegoating frames intolerance no matter who it affects.”
Kugelman, who turned 89 on May 5, grew up in Poland in a well-to-do Jewish family, but their position in society didn’t matter when the Nazi program of “a final solution” against Jews began in 1939. “There were 3.3 million Jews in Poland. Three million were murdered” during World War II, Kugelman told the students. “At first they gathered the intelligentsia. They emptied the hospitals of people who had physical or mental impairments. Hitler’s propaganda was to emphasize the richest of Jews,” although all classes were herded into Nazi ghettos in Poland.
Isaiah Hodges, 17, whose adoptive grandmother was Jewish, said while looking at the posters, “It doesn’t seem real that so many people were killed. It’s beyond words.” Seniors Ariel Huez and Paul South concurred: “It’s hard to believe [the Holocaust] really happened. It affects how you live in the world,” said Huez. “It makes you wonder if you can trust people in the world.”
Kugelman showed the concentration camp tattoo on his arm. “This hurt,” he said. “They did it with a needle, not zoom, zoom, zoom like today. But the pain of hunger was far worse. If you’re hungry like that you look like a skeleton. You stop being a human being. They didn’t need to gas us. We died of exhaustion.”
Moses Geddes, 15, told the AJP, “I could empathize. I’ve gone hungry before for days on end. I’ve never met a person [before] who stayed in a concentration camp and remembered so much.”
“Why didn’t [the Jews] fight back?” a student asked. “What were we going to do?” replied Kugelman. “We were skeletons.”
“What kept you going?” another student asked. “I’m asking myself that,” he said. “I guess dumb luck. Smart people committed suicide or gave up. I was young and stupid. There were guys who took guns and killed some Germans. They took what they wanted.
“A lot of people after their freedom committed suicide. They weren’t able to face life” after American soldiers liberated the concentration camps, said Kugelman.
“You didn’t even dare to hope that there would be a tomorrow,” he said of his darkest days. It was apparent that his memories moved many of the students; a number of them lined up afterward to have pictures taken with Kugelman. And he stood, resolute, next to each teenager, staring into the camera, into his past.