YMCA ball to honor Shoah survivors, WWII and Korean War vets

Holocaust survivor Wolfgang Hellpap lights a memorial candle at the community Yom HaShoah commemoration on May 1, 2016, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

Wolfgang Hellpap, 87, a child survivor of the Holocaust from Berlin, Germany, tells his remarkable story with matter-of-fact simplicity. He’s told it many times during the past 13 years he’s lived in Tucson, to high school students and other groups.

On a trip to Berlin in 1998, Wolfgang Hellpap was able to retrieve his German identity card from a World War II archive. The Nazis assigned the middle name ‘Israel’ to all Jewish males who had first names ‘of non-Jewish origin,’ with ‘Sara’ assigned to females, in addition to a large ‘J’ stamped on their cards.

“I want people and especially young people to know what happened. This is history … it has to be conveyed so that this kind of evil should never happen,” he told the AJP recently.

Hellpap will be among Holocaust survivors honored at the YMCA of Southern Arizona’s 2018 Community Military Ball on Nov. 10, along with World War II and Korean War veterans, and a Council of Heroes representing various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Born in 1931, the son of a Polish Jewish father and a Christian mother who never married, Hellpap says his father left Germany “before everything started.”

Hellpap’s first experience of anti-Semitism came in 1937 when he was in the second grade. “They found out I was officially Jewish,” he says. “They kicked me out of school in the middle of class, when the teacher said she had my name on a list and told me to leave. That was the law. All of a sudden the other kids were throwing rocks and spitting at me, so I had to run as fast as I could. I was crying.”

His mother’s landlady wouldn’t let Hellpap stay in her room, so he was forced to find shelter on his own — sometimes with relatives for a few days, sometimes hiding in old sheds in parks. 

Eventually, the police caught him and placed him in a Jewish orphanage, basically a little camp, he says, where some of the Jewish teachers cooperated with the Nazis. The Gestapo would come at night with lists of children to be deported, and one Jewish teacher would crack a whip at the children as their names were called.

“It was a horrible time,” he says, adding that the building that housed the Auerbach Jewish Orphanage, now an apartment house, bears a plaque chronicling its history, along with a wall built in memory of the children who were killed that current residents must pass every day.

The rest of Hellpap’s story, which includes service in the Israeli army, where he nearly lost a leg, and in the U.S. Army, which returned him to Germany as a translator, is chronicled in the first volume of “To Tell Our Stories: Holocaust Survivors of Southern Arizona,” published in 2015 by Jewish Family & Children’s Services. A second volume was published this year.

Hellpap says that with the remaining survivors dying out, and people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, “as long as I can speak out, I will … that’s my last duty in this world.”

U.S. Coast Guard veteran Max Davis and Priscilla Storm, YMCA military ball volunteer liaison, at the 2016 YMCA Community Military Ball

Former U.S. Coast Guard Yeoman Third Class Max Davis was an anti-submariner in the South Pacific during World War II. Davis, who is Jewish, was a member of the Council of Heroes at the YMCA’s inaugural military ball in 2016, and will again be recognized this year.

He told the AJP he wanted to volunteer in 1941 after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, but being only 15, he had to wait two years to volunteer, with parental consent, in 1943.

Davis says he experienced some anti-Semitism during his military career, but nothing he couldn’t handle, dismissing those who expressed such bigotry as “idiots.”

One of his most cherished memories is participating in an Honor Flight about 10 years ago, visiting the various war memorials in Washington, D.C., and, along with other veterans, being greeted by bands playing music and children waving flags at the various airports along the journey.

At 92, Davis says, “I hope that I’m never called again, but if my country asked me to serve I would happily do it.” 

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell of Temple Chai in Phoenix, who also serves as a military chaplain, will give the invocation at the ball.

Koppell says it will be “a humble honor to be in the presence of our military heroes and of those who experienced and survived the worst of human depravity. I know that it will be incredibly moving to witness these two groups encountering each other — they have a shared experience that is unimaginable to the rest of us.”

The YMCA expects more than 900 attendees at the event, a fundraiser for YMCA programs benefiting local active duty military and their families.

“In keeping with the YMCA’s 150 plus years of military support, the ball raises funds to provide free and reduced cost memberships and summer camp tuitions,” says Stephanie Horne, chief development officer of the YMCA of Southern Arizona. She adds that the goal is to make the YMCA “a touchstone for military families no matter where their careers take them throughout the country.”

The ball, which will be held at the Tucson Convention Center, will feature a keynote address by retired USMC Lieutenant General Robert Johnston and music by the University of Arizona Jazz Band, Tucson Highlanders Pipes and Drums, The George Howard Band, and trumpeter Michael Finkelstein. Other military VIPs in attendance will include retired USAF Major General Ted Maxwell; retired USAF Major General John Almquist; Major Rodney Glassman, USAF JAG Corp Reserve; and retired USAF General Eugene “Gene” Santarelli.

Tickets are $150. To purchase tickets, contact Horne at 623-5511, ext. 257, or visit www.tucsonymca.org/events/military-ball.