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Air Guard helps Tucson students learn about the Holocaust

Holocaust survivor Irving Senor shows Tucson-area high school students the concentration camp number etched into his arm 64 years ago at Auschwitz during World War II. Senor, along with six other survivors, spoke to more than 300 students at the 162nd Fighter Wing for a Holocaust remembrance program, March 27. (Photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve, 162nd Fighter Wing)

Holocaust survivor Irving Senor shows Tucson-area high school students the concentration camp number etched into his arm 64 years ago at Auschwitz during World War II. Senor, along with six other survivors, spoke to more than 300 students at the 162nd Fighter Wing for a Holocaust remembrance program, March 27. (Photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve, 162nd Fighter Wing)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The 162nd Fighter Wing here helped a new generation of Americans learn what happens when people stay silent in the face of genocide.

The Arizona Air National Guard base at Tucson International Airport hosted more than 300 local high school students during a program to remember the victims of the Holocaust, March 27.

Master Sgt. (ret.) Mark Levine, event organizer, welcomed seven Holocaust Survivors to the base. Then the students divided into groups to listen to their first-hand accounts.

In one small group seminar, Irving Senor, a Holocaust survivor from Salonika, Greece, gave an attentive audience his life story.

"In 1942 when I was 16 years old, Nazis banished my family to a ghetto area where thousands of Jews were forced to live," said Senor. "Houses that were built for four or five people were holding 20 to 25."

They were not allowed to leave their assigned ghetto without permission and were forced to wear the Star of David as a symbol of their status to Nazi invaders. There they waited for their systematic relocation to camps throughout German-occupied Europe. 

Senor was soon sent to a forced labor camp in Greece. "They took 700 of us to build a railroad through Greece so that German logistics could send supplies to the war front in Libya. We did that for seven months."

He remembered how his fellow prisoners were dying of typhus fever and starvation. "They would feed us a piece of bread and a bowl of cabbage soup and work us 10-hour days at hard labor."

Those who were weakened by their treatment were sent to gas chambers for execution. Prisoners were lined up and arbitrarily selected for two separate groups; the first would return to work and the second group would be murdered by their captors.

"Twice I was selected for the gas chamber because I was too skinny," said Senor, "but I was later told to return to the working group so I was spared."

Through the remainder of the war, Senor was moved from Greece, to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany, and later to a camp in Wausau, Poland, where he was finally liberated by American Soldiers in 1945.

In 1949, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and found a job making 65 cents per hour making leather attaché cases. He remained there for 40 years where he married and raised three daughters.

In 1991 he moved to Tucson, and by the age of 71 he became Pima Community College's oldest graduate earning a bachelor's degree in general studies.

"You are never too old to learn something," he said to his teenage audience.

In concluding his presentation, Senor said, "I don't hate anyone... that makes your heart bitter. Always remember there is hope no matter what you're going through."

At the program's end, the students and Guard members gathered for a candle lighting ceremony to remember those affected by the Holocaust.

"This is a worthwhile project," said Levine. "Not only do the Guardsmen need to learn about the Holocaust and genocide but the local students need to hear the message too. It teaches them a valuable lesson in diversity."

"And... as military members, this is why we fight ... so this doesn't happen again," he said.

Dr. Gail Wallen, teacher, historian and clinically certi¬fied hospice chaplain, spoke to the students about the social climate in Europe that led to the Holocaust during World War II. 

According to Dr. Wallen, the survivors represent a universal tragedy and serve as witnesses to what happens when the abnormalities of a culture are allowed to run unchecked.

"I think today was wonderful," said Dr. Wallen. "We've been doing this event here [at the 162nd Fighter Wing] for six years and we are very appreciative to the Guard for supporting these events."