When I first spot Bill Kugelman across the room at a local senior living community, he is sitting in a chair, waving his arms in the air and stomping his feet to lively Zumba music. Surrounded by a group of grey-headed women, he is one of very few men in the class going through the motions.
“Are you sure that’s him,” I ask Joana Valenzuela, the community administrative attendant who points him out to me. “He’s supposed to be 95 years old. He looks closer to 70,” I say, still surprised. “No, that’s him. He attends all the exercise classes. He is so sweet and complimentary. All the ladies love him,” she giggles.
He springs from his chair, smoothing his silvery hair, and extends a hand with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. As we walk to Kugelman’s apartment, he is emphatic. “I’ve been pumped so much about the Holocaust, I don’t want to talk about it any more. The other day I had nightmares about it again, and I hadn’t even talked about it that day,” he says, frowning.
Indeed, Kugelman spent three and a half years in Nazi concentration camps. He pokes at the tattoo on his left arm to prove it. He says now, he and Walter Feiger, 91, are the only Holocaust camp survivors remaining in Tucson. “The others didn’t feel the boot of the Nazis,” he says, scowling again.
“The Holocaust shaped my life. Luckily, not too bad a shape it took. I still have my sense of logic and brain,” he says, as he begins to recount a bit about his post-war life. We settle into a friendly conversation.
Kugelman was 15 when war broke out in his home in Sosnowiecz, Poland. His prosperous family manufactured and retailed shoes. He had two brothers and a sister that he adored. “I would have grown up to be a playboy if not for the war. I was a spoiled brat, but the Holocaust got it out of me.”
After the war, he continued his studies in a Swedish conservatory studying opera. “I didn’t sing on stage but sang an aria from ‘The Magic Flute’ better than the guy on the film.” Kugelman sang professionally in Sweden and notes that his father and sister had beautiful voices.
“I quit singing when I came to America in 1952. I had to establish myself and make a living,” he recalls. “I did anything I could for a dollar.” He worked in a used clothing shop in the Bowery in New York City, worked as a gardener and much more before he was able to reignite the family business, as the owner of a “very elegant shoe salon” in New York.
In Tucson from 1965, he owned Zev’s Famous Brand shoe stores before his retirement in 1985. The stores remain in the family today as Alan’s Shoes. “I’m in such a lucky position at my age that I can afford to walk around,” he says, waving at his cozy apartment, dotted with artworks and family photos. Soothing classical music plays in the background.
For many years Kugelman was a well-known, frequent public speaker about the Holocaust to community groups, school children, and youth in juvenile detention, among others. He feels it’s been enough.
He places a hand on a thick, hardbound volume stacked with a paperback dictionary. He is reading “The Story of Civilization” by Will and Ariel Durant, in 11 volumes. He’s been reading it for the four years since he moved into a senior living community.
“I did a couple of seders for Passover here, but I don’t like to put myself out as the center of attention,” he says. “Everyone made themselves my friend … when I look at whiney people, I don’t see them. Sad people scare me. I avoid them. I keep to myself,” he contends.
Without skipping a beat, the philosopher in Kugelman makes a different argument. “Longevity is not a game unless you live it. You have to have exchange with people. You gotta have fun in life. If I can’t have a few laughs in an hour, I’ve lost an hour.
“I’m a clown in one place and a crying actor in another. I adjust to the surroundings, to the hour. If you are too rigid, you break. Old is what you make of yourself. I believe the mind is what causes people to physically deteriorate. If you dwell too much on the negative. You gotta be positive, otherwise, throw in the towel.”