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Expanded Holocaust History Center will be dream come true

The new entrance of the Holocaust History Center, sharing a plaza with the Jewish History Museum, will allow for easy traffic flow from one museum to the other.

More than 250 Holocaust survivors have lived in Southern Arizona since the 1950s. Following decades of hoping for an institution that would archive the stories and memorabilia of survivors’ lives, the dream will become a reality when a greatly expanded Holocaust History Center opens in early 2016.

“By creating a physical space, Holocaust education will continue into the future,” says Bryan Davis, interim executive director of the Jewish History Museum and director of the Holocaust Education & Commemoration Project at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. “The urgency is to have students interact with the 120 survivors who still live here. There’s a small window of opportunity left.”

The Jewish History Museum, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, has launched a $750,000 fundraising effort to erect the new center. In 2012, the Jewish History Museum acquired the building next door and a year later opened a 400-square-foot Holocaust History Center. The old building behind the present one-room center will be renovated, expanding the center’s space five times, to 2,000 square feet.

“We’ve already raised $375,000 from two anonymous lead donors, which will provide a matching challenge grant in our efforts to raise an additional $375,000,” JFSA President and CEO Stuart Mellan told the AJP. “We’ll raise funds from now till June, then start construction” of the new building.

This all began “around four or five years ago when the Jewish History Museum approached the Federation, which carried a leadership role in Holocaust education,” he says, “and asked us to partner with them on the creation of a Holocaust History Center at the museum.”

The new center will include a speakers’ bureau, recognizing that the heart of Holocaust education is meeting with Holocaust survivors, their descendants and scholars.  In addition to more exhibitions documenting the history of Nazi persecution, the center will feature state-of-the-art technology that will include a vast collection of survivor testimonial videos produced by the Federation. Davis hopes that videos produced by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation will also be available to local museum goers, adding to a rich multisensory experience.

“We want to amp up the program,” says Mellan, adding that funding transportation for even more school field trips is essential. “Two thousand kids have already visited the 400-square-foot space.”

One day Safford Middle School brought a few hundred students to visit the facility. “We watched a continuous rotation of 30 or 40 students either going or coming from the exhibit,” says Davis. A larger space will allow more tailored tours and presentations for school groups, professional development for educators and community lectures. Another addition will be a section that will address contemporary atrocities and human rights abuses worldwide, such as the ongoing genocide in Darfur in the western region of Sudan.

“I want to know how to stop the Holocaust from happening again,” says Joe Gootter, chair of the project’s campaign cabinet. “Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe and lately more has been going on here. The new museum will bring awareness to what’s happening today and what we don’t want to happen tomorrow.”  Gootter’s wife, Paulette, was a hidden child during World War II who was raised as a Catholic in the countryside outside of Paris.  “Her parents never spoke about it,” he says. “Finally, they started opening up about it.”

For Rosie Eilat-Kahn, it was a different story. “My parents met in Sweden. Both had been in Auschwitz and were rescued by the Swedish Red Cross,” she says. “My mother came to Cleveland in 1948. A cousin there sponsored her. My father came to Cleveland in 1950 and they were married. I was born there in 1951.”

Sixty years later, Eilat-Kahn’s hope for the new Holocaust center is that “people will be taught tolerance, non-discrimination and racial equality so they understand that’s what these Holocaust survivors stand for.” Doing her part, she serves as chair of the Holocaust Education Task Force and on the next generation cabinet of the new center.

When Eilat-Kahn was in seventh grade she and her parents had a major influence on her teacher Ray Davies, who has taken on the cause of Holocaust education, although he’s not Jewish. “There’s no doubt that Tucson is a hub of Jewish education and Holocaust education,” notes Davies, now 87. In 1959-60, “having Rosie in class awakened in me that the Holocaust is a human rights issue. I began my research, which is ongoing, with the help of Rabbi Albert Bilgray” of Temple Emanu-El and others.

Davies, who taught middle school for 36 years in the Tucson Unified School District, has stopped teaching, he says, “but I haven’t stopped teaching about the Holocaust. I’m hoping it’s an interfaith campaign to help support the campaign to finish the museum, especially with the concerted effort against public education in Phoenix. We need to stress the need for a diversified curriculum. There’s more to education than passing tests. The Holocaust is an example of all people being subject to ill will. Nobody can escape the vicious intent of prejudice.”

Davies serves on the Alumni Education Council of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  “I was there for the groundbreaking of the Holocaust museum, for its opening and for its 20th anniversary last year” in Washington, says Davies. He was slated to attend a conference of Holocaust scholars at Temple University in Philadelphia this month, and has visited more than 20 Holocaust museums worldwide.

Davies is honorary chair of the new center’s construction campaign, along with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim and Brendan Phibbs, M.D., a World War II liberator.

“Ten years ago,” says Davies, “I marched by myself from Montgomery to Selma, Ala., remembering [the civil rights activist] Rosa Parks saying, ‘We don’t stand on people’s shoulders. We must get off of other people’s shoulders. Now is the time for action.’ Our dream will be realized next year in Tucson.”

“I’m glad and I’m greatly relieved,” says Bill Kugelman, a Holocaust survivor. “For at least 40 years I’ve been trying to get this going. It was Stu Mellan who gave me hope. I intend to express my appreciation to him.”

The Federation’s Davis recalls teaching eighth-grade students at Tucson Country Day School in 2005. They had read “Night,” a Holocaust memoir by Elie Wiesel, when the author visited Tucson. Wiesel was gracious enough to meet with Davis’ students, who had written poems in response to the book. About a year later, Wiesel responded to the poems in a letter that mentioned each student individually. That kind of personal interaction and real-life experience, such as talking with local survivors, nurtures learning, and, says Davis, “nurtures educators to get involved.”

For those Southern Arizonans who won’t get to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, or the Holocaust museums in Washington or Los Angeles, the new museum “will give them the opportunity to learn firsthand about man’s inhumanity to man,” says Barry Friedman, M.D., president of the JHM board. Museum goers will discover the stories of Holocaust survivors, “people living in Arizona who have had successful lives, who came from tremendous adversity. They may have come to Arizona directly or after a stop along the way. They have contributed to the history of the Jewish community and to greater Tucson.”

Friedman also recognizes the new center “as a dream come true.” And, he says, “Let’s hope that it helps contribute to no more genocides in the future.”

For more information about the Holocaust History Center, contact Bryan Davis at 577-9393, ext. 124, or bdavis@jfsa.org.