Soul searching: Holocaust Center tour stirs emotions of visitors


Photos by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A tour of the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills invariably produces a range of emotions among the 65,000 visitors who annually step into a place that documents the “unprecedented horrific crime” perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II.

Just ask Barbara McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, who along with U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman helped organize a tour of the museum June 9 for scores of federal personnel.
“I was talking with someone on the way in today and she said that the tour will ‘wreck your day,’” McQuade related. “Indeed it can, but while it is an incredibly sad experience, it also can be equally inspiring to learn about those who survived the Holocaust and the vital roles many played in changing the course of history.”

Her remarks were echoed by Friedman, a federal judge in Detroit since 1988 who is a frequent visitor to Israel on missions demonstrating his support for the Jewish homeland.

“The Holocaust Center moves me each time I enter its doors,” said Friedman, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District. “It traces the path of evil leading up to and during World War II, and yet it is full of stories of courage and heroism that need to be recognized fully in the years to come.”

Gary Karp, president of the HMC, has a special stake in the past, present, and future of the museum, which opened in 1984 on the campus of the Jewish Community Center.

His parents, Alex and Gaby Karp, were among the founders of the HMC and were committed to building a place for “our community to learn from this tragedy, to speak up against injustice, and to prevent further genocide.”

In remarks before the June 9 tour began, Karp reminded museum visitors that “we cannot live only for ourselves,” adding that a “thousand fibers connect us with our fellow man” as individuals grapple with their role as a “victim, a perpetrator, or a bystander.”

Such thoughts have a deeper meaning for Jack Gun, a Holocaust survivor who told visitors part of his harrowing life story following the museum tour last week.

Gun, now in his early 80s, was just 5 years old when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, launching World War II. He was born and grew up in Rozhishche, Poland, part of a Jewish family that included his parents and an older sister and brother.

His father helped run a fabric store and a wholesale tobacco business, and also gave a “part of their home over to a Hebrew school for underprivileged children.” He was a “kind and generous man,” said Gun, who counted a Czech farmer, a Christian named “Mr. Yarushka” among his special friends.

In 1941, Gun and his family were herded by the Nazis into the city’s “ghetto,” where food and water were scarce, and danger was ever-present.

A year later, the ghetto would be “liquidated” by the Nazis, who marched some 4,500 Jews to their death in front of firing squads.

Among those killed were Gun’s parents and sister, while he and his brother escaped the massacre by hiding in a farm hayloft after being alerted of the impending slaughter.

Over the course of the next two years, Gun and his brother would rely on the grace, courage and cunning of Mr. Yarushka and a worker of his, who provided food and clothing to the two boys while they were hiding in nearby fields and forests.

The brothers spent one winter in a makeshift bunker, battling numbing cold, hunger, boredom, constant fear, and infestations of lice.

“Back then, there was no ‘global warming,’ no ‘January thaw,’” Gun said of his own winters of discontent.

Their daily menu consisted of “stale bread and cold potatoes,” offerings that grew increasingly scarce as the winter months dragged on.

After a series of close calls, the brothers were able to come out of hiding when the Russians liberated parts of Poland in the spring of 1944.

It was the beginning of a four-year odyssey that would take them to Russia, Austria, Germany and eventually the United States, where they bounced around from New York, to Pennsylvania, to Detroit.
There, Gun would become proficient in English, graduating with academic honors from Detroit Central High. As a teen, he was the subject of a local newspaper article titled, “He’s a Mere 15 But Has Lived 1,000

In many respects, it was an apt headline for a Holocaust survivor who would become a successful businessman in his adopted country, raising a family that now includes two children and six grandchildren.
“I owe my life to my brother and many others,” Gun said. “Without their help and courage, I wouldn’t be here today, telling a story that to many of you seems unimaginable. I can never give enough thanks for what they did and the sacrifices many people made.”