Expansion of local Holocaust museum garners broad support

A slideshow at the May 29 event to showcase plans for the Holocaust History Center expansion included this artist's rendering of an interactive testimonial wall (SBBL Architecture and Planning)

Many local schoolchildren may never get the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., or the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

But Tucson’s Holocaust History Center at the Jewish History Museum can put that kind of learning within reach, Bryan Davis, interim director of the museum, said May 20 at the “A Beacon and A Hope” event held at The Loft Cinema, where about 100 community members got an in-depth look at plans for the center’s expansion.

“The center is about preserving the past, but it’s really looking to impact future generations,” he said. More than 2,000 students have visited the center since it opened in October 2013.

The center is a joint project of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Jewish History Museum. Both the center and the museum closed June 1 so that construction could begin, increasing the center’s space fivefold to 2,000 square feet.

One of the main focuses of the center is telling the story of the survivors who settled in Southern Arizona. When phase one opened in 2013, it was the fulfillment of a dream cherished for more than four decades, not only by those survivors and their families, but also by the larger Jewish and non-Jewish community, Rabbi Stephanie Aaron says in a video [vimeo.com/ 121756238] shown at the May 20 event. The expansion also has broad support. Community leaders endorsing the project on the video include Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Mexican Consul General Ricardo Pineda and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, whose wife, Karen, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

“The lessons of the Holocaust cannot be confined in a limited historical footnote, but rather they must be taught and made relevant to each new generation,” Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall says on the video, while YWCA Tucson Executive Director Kelly Fryer notes that the YWCA’s mission statement ends with “promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. And I think that’s exactly what the center will remind us to do.”

An aerial overview of the campus plan for the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center (SBBL Architecture and Planning)
An aerial overview of the campus plan for the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center (SBBL Architecture and Planning)

At the event, Rob Bass of SBBL Architecture and Planning outlined the expansion plan, which will create a campus connecting the Jewish History Museum (housed in the historic Stone Avenue Temple) and the Holocaust History Center via covered walkways. The center will include a flexible space for traveling exhibitions or lectures, a contemporary human rights exhibit and a memorial garden.

Davis also hopes to include a library to house more than 2,500 volumes of Holocaust-related literature collected by the Federation and the Jewish History Museum.

A key part of the permanent exhibit will be an interactive video wall where visitors can hear the actual voices of local survivors from oral histories collected by the Federation. These archives become even more important as the number of Holocaust survivors continues to decline.

The event also honored Ray Davies, a former Tucson Unified School District teacher who has been a champion of Holocaust education ever since Rosie Eilat Kahn, daughter of Susan and Meyer Neuman, who may have been the first survivors to settle in Tucson in the 1950s, walked into his classroom as a seventh-grader.

A panel of speakers featured administrators, educators and students from local school districts and the University of Arizona.

Crystal Soltero, an assistant professor at the UA College of Education who taught for many years at Amphitheatre High School, recalled the power of having survivors speak in the classroom. A member of the Federation’s Holocaust education task force, Soltero took her College of Education students to the center this year and plans to do so every semester. “For the most part, pre-service teachers understand the importance of this history, but they do not understand how every Holocaust story is unique,” she said, adding that the center will be a space “where students of all levels will be able to confront and discuss a complicated history that still provokes more questions than answers.”

UA students Belinda Hughes and Katie Siwick both plan to be docents at the center when it reopens.

Calling museums “a way to walk through history,” Hughes, a pre-service teacher, noted that children can relate Holocaust themes of hatred and discrimination to the bullying that still goes on today — which makes it all the more important for them to continue learning the lessons of the Holocaust.

Siwick recalled that her Holocaust education, which began in middle school, was thorough and profound, but it still felt distant until she heard a survivor speak in person. She felt the same spark of connection when she first visited the center. “I am a kinesthetic learner, which means I learn best when I can have a personal interaction with the subject,” she explained, adding that the expanded center will cater to all types of learners, with photos for visual learners, timelines and descriptions of events for verbal learners and victims’ testimony for audio and kinesthetic learners.

Fundraising for the $750,000 construction project was spurred by a lead gift from an anonymous donor. The building will be named for donors Amy and Wayne Gould, who provided another lead gift.

“With everything going on in the world today, the lessons from the Holocaust, in my opinion, are incredibly far-reaching. We can’t do anything to change the past but we certainly can work toward helping the next generation to act more responsibly in the future,” Amy Gould told the AJP in a phone interview, noting that Tucson has already done much to promote Holocaust remembrance.

The Goulds facilitated the recent installation of the Butterfly Project, part of a global Holocaust remembrance effort, at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation. A quote from Anne Frank that is part of that display, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,” explains, says Wayne Gould, “why we are so committed to [the Holocaust History Center] project. As we see the number of Holocaust survivors dwindling, we need to treasure each one and find ways to continue to educate people, once these survivors are no longer with us to do the job.”

The center is continuing to raise funds so it can bring in traveling exhibitions — and to help make future visits by schoolchildren a reality by funding their transportation, said Davis, who noted that today, buses for field trips are beyond most school’s budgets.

As panelist Steve Holmes, the incoming superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District, put it, Holocaust education should be “less about individual teachers who have a certain affinity or knowledge” about the subject, but instead should be taught consistently and “become more deeply ingrained in all our kids.”