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Arizona Air Guard helps Tucson students learn about the Holocaust

Klara Swimmer, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, tells her story to a group of Tucson area high school students during the 162nd Fighter Wing’s Holocaust Rememberance event here, March 17. (Air National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Jones)

Klara Swimmer, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, tells her story to a group of Tucson area high school students during the 162nd Fighter Wing’s Holocaust Remembrance event here, March 17. (Air National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Jones)

162nd Fighter Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Phil Conway lights a candle in remembrance of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust of World War II. More than 250 students joined Arizona Air Guardsmen at Tucson International Airport to learn about the Holocaust. (Air National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Jones)

162nd Fighter Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Phil Conway lights a candle in remembrance of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust of World War II. More than 250 students joined Arizona Air Guardsmen at Tucson International Airport to learn about the Holocaust. (Air National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Jones)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- "It's the ghetto. That's just how it is here." These words, regularly heard by Americans, are a statement of apathy, complacency and despair. But for more than 250 high school students gathered at the 162nd Fighter Wing here March 17, the word "ghetto" was a rallying cry of a time now long in our past that must not be forgotten - it must not be repeated.

"You are going to be getting a gift and a burden," said Dr. Gail Wallen, teacher, historian and clinically certified hospice chaplain. "The gift is their story; the burden is how you will handle it. You will be the last generation to hear their story," she told students as she talked about seven Holocaust survivors who came to the Guard base at Tucson International Airport to tell their stories.

The students separated into small groups, each to hear the story of the Holocaust, not from a historian or a teacher reading a textbook, but eye-witness accounts from survivors who had actually been there.

"I am an only child," started Klara Swimmer, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor. "I am Hungarian. My father was taken to a slave labor camp when I was 18 - I never saw him again."

They were taken to the ghettos where she lived for a short time, she said.

It was during this period of time in the early 1940's that the term Jüdischer Wohnbezirk, or Jewish "ghetto," was first defined. It was located in the poorest neighborhood, surrounded by a wall, crowded, dark and damp with epidemics of typhoid and other diseases.

"We were told we had to go to the railroad station," Swimmer recalled. Tears filled her eyes as she described the cattle cars that she and her Jewish neighbors were forced into. The cars were locked, and they traveled for three days from Hungary without any food. During the trip people died; those in the cars couldn't get away from the bodies.

"When they opened the cars the whole place was dark except for flames in the distance. The German's yelled 'Get out! Get out!'," said Swimmer.

"We were separated; those who were healthy went in one direction, the rest went in another," Swimmer said, recalling with pain how she and her mother had been sent in different directions. Babies, the sick and the elderly were all sent in the same direction as her mother; sent to die by gas poisoning. The other group was tagged.

"I was not engraved because they were already losing the war; they needed the ink. My number was 25,480," more than 60 years later Swimmer still recalled the number from her tag.

"What would you have done if you had been in my place?" she asked. "If I would have been smart enough and taken my mother to the border..." her voice trailed off.

Later, Swimmer and 300 women were shipped to a factory where they made hand grenades. They were fed a slice of bread and black water, called coffee, in the morning and a bowl of soup at night. Often people would try to be at the end of the lines because the meat in the soup came from rats.

"May 8, 1944, I had fallen sick and the next morning Allied soldiers rescued us. I was taken to a field hospital and I was given two injections of penicillin by American doctors," she said.

She then turned her attention to Guardsmen attending the event.

"We are so grateful to them [the Guard] and what they are doing for us," Swimmer said, grateful to the men and women in uniform who protect her freedom today. She named the service branches in turn, thanking each one. "You are so lucky to be born here and I am so grateful to be a citizen," she told the students.

"In my story, I have a message of freedom - a message of combating injustice," said Swimmer.