Helen Handler’s most vivid memory is of the boots. Those shiny, black boots.
Separated from her family, stripped naked and lined up at the Auschwitz concentration camp, Handler, then 15 years old, found herself in front of a Nazi SS officer.
“As small as I was then, I was face-to-face with his boots,” Handler said on Tuesday. “He was dressed in a uniform and nonchalantly pointed left and right, pulling out people from the line. He was smiling, as if he was God.
“And you know what? At that moment, he was. He decided on life and death.”
Handler was removed from the line — her mother and two brothers were not — which saved her life but exposed her to continued atrocities. Her late-in-life mission is to teach the Holocaust lessons that still need to be taught.
Though the 82-year-old Phoenix resident speaks softly, her anti-hate message clarions and thunders. She will speak at the Jan. 8 fundraiser for the proposed Holocaust & Tolerance Museum in Chandler.
“We — the survivors — won the war, and not because the Nazi Germany was disarmed,” Handler said. “We survived. We got married, had children and grandchildren. And we never talked to them about hate or vengeance. We didn’t put a gun in our children’s hand to send them out to kill and be killed. We put books in their hands, and they went and filled universities in this country and all over the world.”
Born Ilona Ackerman in the former Czechoslovakia, Handler withstood the horrors of Auschwitz and Birkenau and was part of a death march before she was one of 7,000 prisoners freed by the Soviet army in January 1945.
After being hospitalized, primarily due to tuberculosis, for five years, she was transported to Canada. She married a fellow Holocaust survivor and had a son, moved to Detroit and then Phoenix, where she operated a drapery store at MetroCenter before retiring.
Handler and other Holocaust survivors will be gone soon, she said, so it is critical for new generations to take up the awareness torch. She believes that the Chandler Holocaust Museum — a 4.6-acre project slated to be built next to the East Valley Jewish Community Center at Alma School and Ray roads — will be a vital local resource.
“You cannot look to and live in the future if you never turn back to see the horros of the past,” Handler said. “In some respects, killing has become entertainment. We are losing respect for human life.”
The fundraiser — which will feature a screening of “Rene & I,” a documentary of twins who survived experiments by Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele, “The Angel of Death” — will be the initial money push for what will be one of five Holocaust museums in the country.
There is no construction timetable. Chandler has pledged a development agreement for as much as $2 million to improve infrastructure around the museum.
Former Tempe mayor Neil Giuliano is a strategic advisor to RSP Architects, who will supervise the project, and will be a big help in fundraising, said Steve Tepper, Jewish Community Center executive director.
“I wish we could break ground today,” Tepper said. “We need this museum now, but we need to do our due diligence and continue to build an effective case for support. …
“Soon, my children will not be able to hear from a Holocaust survivor first-person, and that takes away the effect of some of the message. That makes a museum like this all the more important.”