Storytelling — It’s one of the most imaginative ways of instructing on life lessons, and ensuring that these lessons are carried from one generation to the next. It is unique as a cultural instrument — engaging all senses and providing narratives that may be emotionally compelling or may heal, as well as educate.
The narratives told on the campus of the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust Education Center at 564 South Stone, Tucson, recount both suffering and inspiration, and draw diverse listeners of all ages and backgrounds. The communications are opening doors for peace-building and shared culture, and they are illuminating history, with lessons tied to the present.
In February, the small 1880s barrio home adjoining the Jewish History Museum on Stone opened as Tucson’s new Holocaust History Center, a complex bringing alive the region’s unique Jewish history, and the personal stories of Holocaust survivors who settled in Tucson.
In 2001, the Jewish History Museum opened in the 1910 structure that what was once the original synagogue of the Arizona territory. In 2009, the adjacent 1880s territorial building was acquired, and in 2013 a small exhibit on the 200-plus Holocaust survivors who located to Tucson opened in the building. A campaign to restore the entire territorial house was successful, and ensured the conversion of the small building and gardens into the Holocaust Education Center, where Holocaust history and stories could be collected, preserved and reflected in the building structure as well as the exhibits.
Restoration, Education, Commemoration
There are many teachable experiences and stories around the complex.
- More than 20 docents rotate to host tours of the campus. While several docents have deeply personal stories, as they were children of Holocaust survivors who had moved to Tucson, all docents relate stories and timelines about the Holocaust. One Holocaust survivor who settled in Tucson, Bill Kugelman, grew up in Poland and turned 92 this month. He still speaks with school and community groups about his concentration camp memories — the exhaustion, lost families members, the tattoos and hunger, and the converging messages of hope and despair.
- Photos, some artifacts and recorded oral histories are grouped into the exhibits, allowing deeper study of recounted life stories. The testimonies about a traumatic past are integrated with messages of contemporary human rights issues.
- On one wall of the Center, video recordings of Holocaust survivors retelling their stories provide an oral narrative for exhibit images. On another wall, panels of graphics, photos and maps depict the contemporary global crisis — more than 60 million people displaced from their homes by conflict or persecution.
- There is a 1940 photo of Hermina Aussems, who moved to Tucson in 1978 and who had been a member of a Dutch resistance group during the Nazi occupation. Hermina Aussems was one of the beloved “Righteous Among the Nations,” smuggling guns for the resistance in her son’s baby carriage. Her involvement led to her arrest and imprisonment in a Netherlands concentration camp. She was awarded the Resistance Remembrance Cross for her activities during the war by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1983. Hermina Aussems died in Tucson in 2011.
- In the preserved rafters above the floor exhibits, are photos of additional individuals connected to Tucson and the Holocaust. Their stories are being further researched for the Center archives and potential future exhibits.
- The sculpture garden in front of the Education Center incorporates a street grid, depicting the original barrio. Docents tells stories about the barrio, its growth as well as its peoples and cultures.
- In the rear, there are iron mesh screens, illustrating Holocaust movement from dark to light. There are private reflection spaces, framed by salvaged beams and opened to the sky, where visitors can sit and reflect, place stones and light candles on a memory wall.
The Education Center and Museum programs intend to connect the historical storytelling to current human rights issues… all the while continuing a dialog that influences future of human rights and refuels recognition of injustices that can never be forgotten.
- Check the website for Museum and Education Center hours and exhibits. Summer closure: June 12 – August 3. Check here for information on the event honoring the one-year anniversary of Marriage equality and members of the community whose marriages were recognized by the ruling. Save the Date: Stone Avenue Block Party September 29.
- Women preserve tradition through native storytelling. More information here.
- More on narratives and storytelling from the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium, here.
- A 2013 University of South Florida graduate thesis on Compassionate Storytelling with Holocaust Survivors, by Chris J. Patti, here.