When George Kalman spoke, people listened.
“He was so soft-spoken and so gentle,” said Kim Klett, a teacher. His demeanor was in stark contrast to the subject matter he would often speak about: surviving the Holocaust.
Kalman, who lived in Phoenix, died May 25 at 86. Kalman touched thousands of lives, especially in his work as a Holocaust educator.
He was active in Holocaust education for over 25 years, speaking with a variety of men’s clubs, senior groups and young students.
“Instead of giving a prepared talk, I conduct my meetings as a one-on-one Q&A format,” he told Jewish News in March. “I tell them that I like hostile questions like, ‘I hear frequently that the Holocaust never happened, why?’ Excellent question, let’s talk about it in detail.”
Klett, a twelfth-grade English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa, hosted Kalman to speak about the Holocaust to her students at least six times over the past ten years or so.
“I did really see him develop over the years in the way he told his story,” she said. And her students, many of whom are immigrants awaiting permanent citizenship status, related to Kalman.
“They got the idea of somebody looking for you — of somebody not wanting you there,” she said.
Kalman also spoke with kids through the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.
“His impact was immeasurable,” said Tony Fusco, education coordinator at AJHS. “He was a wonderful person and he made an emotional connection with the kids. He was able to really make them feel his story.”
Sheryl Bronkesh, president of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, said Kalman was dedicated to educating students.
“Whenever we asked, ‘Could you speak?’ or, ‘Could you do something?’ I just can’t remember George ever saying, ‘Wait, let me check,’ or, ‘I’ll see if I feel up to it.’ He just always did it. And, unfortunately, because of the shrinking number of survivors who are able to do this, his death is an incredible loss to Holocaust education.”
Kalman was kicked out of the third grade for being Jewish. He was 9 years old when he was shoved into a cattle car in Szeghalom, Hungary to be deported to a labor camp in Austria. He was 10 in April 1945, when the camp was liberated by the Russian Red Army. After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, his mother encouraged him to leave the country, and he escaped by walking across the border into Austria.
As interested in educating people about the Holocaust as he was in his later years, Kalman wasn’t always so open and willing to share his experience.
“It wasn’t really until he was much older — almost to the point he was retired — that something changed and he could pay more attention to it and be able to talk about it,” said Claire Kalman, his daughter.
She said her dad was passionate about education and always looked forward to talking to the kids and finding out what their questions were.
He also began learning about Judaism and studying Torah later in life.
“When retirement came, he began making up for those lost years of Torah study, and he always believed in education,” she said. “Growing up, he would say, ‘Your job is to go to school and to learn.'"
Kalman moved to Mesa in 1993, where he went to Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Emanuel Rabbi Emeritus David Pinkwasser said he would see Kalman frequently at services. “No matter whether the service was a contemporary one or a traditional one, he attended. And when I taught adult education Torah study, he was there.”
Kalman was knowledgeable about many things and could have a conversation about almost anything, he said.
“I think that’s what people liked about him,” Pinkwasser said. “You could discuss politics, you could discuss religion, you could talk science with him, music and foreign language. And he was knowledgeable in all those areas. But not pushy.”
Claire Kalman said her dad was just about as passionate about bridge as he was about Holocaust education. He also had a passion for classical, jazz and gypsy folk music. After hearing just a few notes or bars of classical music, he could name the piece and the composer. He loved traditional Hungarian food and those who knew him well sometimes found themselves treated to homemade cold cherry soup, körözött or chicken paprikash.
He is survived by his daughter, Claire Kalman and son, David Kalman. Pinkwasser led the funeral service on June 1. JN
In honor of George’s life, donations can be made to any of the following: Phoenix Holocaust Association phxha.com/donate/; American Contract Bridge League — Educational Foundation acbleducationalfoundation.org/donate.php; or McGill University’s Student Aid and Scholarships alumni.mcgill.ca/give/index.php?new=1.