Rosie Eilat Kahn remembers the heat, and the popsicles her mother gave them melting quickly and dripping on the concrete floor of their new Tucson home.
For Kahn’s parents, Susan and Meyer Neuman, those hot June days 57 years ago were the beginning of a cherished family life, soon busy with four children, school and activities, far from the cruelty and pain they endured in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Neumans, who died here in 2010, had known many Holocaust survivors in Cleveland, their initial stop in the United States, but they were among the first to make Southern Arizona home.
Since then, at least 233 Holocaust survivors have lived here. Their photographs, interviews and histories are being recorded and shared at Tucson’s Holocaust History Center, which opened in October and is the first of its kind in the state. (Learn more at www.jewishhistorymuseum.org).
“Over 230 survivors from 18 nations made Southern Arizona their home,” said Bryan Davis, director of the Holocaust Education Resource Center with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Davis and Eileen Warshaw, the recently retired director of Tucson’s Jewish History Museum, worked together on the project with the help of numerous local volunteers.
The center neighbors the museum, at 564 S. Stone Ave., and is only partly completed. Even so, it has already provided hundreds of Tucson students a vivid history lesson not only on one of the world’s darkest chapters, but also on the triumphs of the human spirit.
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The recorded stories of several local survivors play continuously on a screen at the back of a long, narrow room that was once a popular downtown beauty parlor run by the Carrillo family.
In recent times, the space was used for storage until Warshaw directed the restoration in 2012-2013. The parlor-turned-history center is attached to the original Carrillo Territorial home, which will also be restored and used as museum space. At least $250,000 is needed to finish the project, said the museum’s new director, Judy Sensibar.
When Warshaw started the museum in March 2004, it was called the Stone Avenue Temple Project. After completing its restoration, she carried out the merger of the project with the 50-year-old Jewish Historical Society of Southern Arizona, forming Tucson’s Jewish History Museum. It’s one of only 27 like it in the United States, she said.
“You can’t separate Jewish Southwest history from other Southwest history, for indeed they are one and the same,” said Warshaw, who retired last month for health reasons. “How many Southern Arizona residents know that Drachman, Mansfeld, Zeckendorf, Steinfeld, Goldschmidt and so many other pioneer founders were Jewish?”
Warshaw said the Carrillo house was a family home, and part of the building supplies for the house came here by train in the 1880s. It’s one of the few remaining Territorial houses in the barrio, she said.
One wall in the new center is lined with photographs and brief histories of local survivors, and there are blank spaces for those who remain unknown. Some of the faces featured are Russians who were displaced because of the war, while others were once hidden children who lost their parents in concentration camps.
Not all of the people remembered are Jewish.
Hermina Aussems, for example, is recognized for her humanity and her bravery as an Underground resistance fighter in the Netherlands. Aussems smuggled medicine and other supplies to Jews. She helped blow up German train tracks and carried weapons hidden in a baby stroller.
Aussems, who died here in 2011, was sent to the Vught Concentration Camp, where she barely survived after being forced into a tiny cell with more than 50 other prisoners.
“By the next morning, there was a pile of dead bodies in there,” said her son, Tucsonan Nicolaas Aussems, who was a baby during the war. “My mother was thought to be dead, but then a doctor realized she wasn’t.”
Aussems later testified at the trials of the Vught Camp guards and received the Medal of Bravery from Queen Beatrix Armgard of the Netherlands. She moved to Tucson with her family in 1978, after living in New York and New Jersey.
“That’s what got her so upset about the war, what they were doing to the Jews,” her son said. “People know right from wrong, and some people chose not to close their eyes to the wrong.”
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When Leslie Janes Moll‘s eighth-graders at Challenger Middle School visited recently, many students were surprised to learn how many Holocaust survivors had lived, or were living, in Tucson.
Mariana Gutierrez, 13, said that after reading about their lives, she marveled at how anyone could have a normal life after experiencing such horror.
Crystal Ramirez, 13, found the visit “very sad.”
“How could someone be so cruel to so many people?” she wrote in an email to the Arizona Daily Star.
Student Sebastian Moreno, 13, said he was “in shock” not only at the number of people who moved here, but also at the extent of the atrocities, “things that I never thought people would ever do.”
“If anything,” he wrote, “I felt like I learned how the will of one person could change the world in a blink of an eye.”
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Meyer Neuman was one of millions whose world was changed in the blink of an eye.
Born in 1914 in Volovo, Czechoslovakia, he survived five concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen. He lived in Sweden and Cleveland before moving in 1956 to Tucson, where he owned and operated Meyer’s Garage until 1977.
Before the war, Neuman was married and had three cherished children, a daughter and two sons. They were sent straight to the gas chamber when the family arrived at Auschwitz. His first daughter was about 5 at the time, the same age Rosie Kahn was when her family arrived in Tucson.
“I felt I had to live for both of us,” Kahn said of the half-sister she never met.
When Kahn’s father left the Nazi work camp, he was 31 years old and weighed 69 pounds. While recovering at a hospital in Sweden, he met his second wife, Susan Neuman, who was born in 1922 in Selisht, Czechoslovakia.
“My mom, she was pretty healthy and she would go visit the sicker refugees in the hospital,” Kahn said. “She saw my dad and thought, ‘He won’t be here tomorrow.’”
Susan Neuman also survived several concentration camps, but she worked in a kitchen in Auschwitz and fared better than Kahn’s father because she was able to sneak food.
As Kahn aged, her parents told her more about what they’d been through. On many occasions, Kahn and her three younger brothers were awakened in the night by their sleeping parents’ screams.
Perhaps Meyer Neuman was dreaming of the time he noticed camp inmates were standing calf-deep in mud and so he threw them planks of wood to stand on. For that, Nazi soldiers pushed him off a three-story building and left him to die in a cart of cadavers. Fellow inmates saved him by sneaking him pieces of bread.
And perhaps Susan Neuman was remembering being attacked by several Nazi dogs for initially refusing to take a turnip back from a hungry little girl who had stolen it.
“My parents were compassionate, wonderful people,” said Kahn, who chairs the Holocaust Education & Commemoration Project at Tucson’s Jewish Federation. When her parents died in 2010, her mother was 87 and her father was 96.
“I feel truly blessed to have been raised by the parents who raised me, by the people who were my parents,” she said. “To me, it’s so amazing how all of these survivors, not just my parents, how all of them were able to keep going, to start a new life and bring children into the world.”