The new director of Tucson’s Holocaust Museum is a survivor of the genocide herself

JTA via Arizona Jewish Post – The Holocaust Museum in Arizona’s second largest city has selected a Jewish survivor of an African genocide as its new leader.

The board of directors of the Jewish History Museum / Holocaust History Center in Tucson unanimously elected Gugulethu Moyo as executive director in November, making her likely the first colored Jew to head a major Jewish museum in the United States.

Moyo, who has been the museum’s operations manager since July 2019, brings with her a unique set of qualifications that span both her career as an international human rights attorney and her personal Jewish journey.

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“Gugu has the most remarkable biography I have ever seen on a job applicant,” said Barry Kirschner, President of the Museum Council and a lawyer himself.

This biography includes a childhood in Zimbabwe, a legal career in support of media freedom, and a Jewish journey inspired by South African anti-apartheid lawyers.

Moyo takes over a 15 year old museum, memory, and Holocaust education institution in Arizona at a time of intense change.

The COVID pandemic has severely restricted access to the museum and the typical flow of non-Jewish visitors, especially school children on school trips, has ceased. Some programs have come online in what Moyo called a “great opportunity and innovation” that is fraught with uncertainty.

Posted by Jewish History Museum on Thursday 19th Nov, 2020

At the same time, Arizona recently commissioned school education about the Holocaust and other genocides, giving the museum a role in creating materials based on the archives of testimonies from survivors who lived in the southern part of the state.

And the national reckoning of racism that erupted in police custody following the death of George Floyd last spring means that Moyo’s vision for the museum’s future has resonated again.

The core work … is to tell the story of the Jewish experience in that particular region and place our story alongside the story of others in order to make connections between what we have experienced as Jews and the experiences of others in our wider community

“The core work,” said Moyo, “is to continue the museum’s mission, which is to tell the story of the Jewish experience in that particular region, and to place our story alongside the story of others to create links between the two. ” Things that we as Jews have experienced with the experience of others in our wider community. “

Tucson, with around 540,000 residents, is less than an hour’s drive from the Mexican border and is considered the birthplace of the Sanctuary movement, which offers refuge to immigrants fleeing persecution in Central America. The Jewish Museum recently launched a membership initiative called Compelling Futures Collective, which states that it is a “multi-ethnic, multi-ethnic, cross-gender, cross-generational, cross-class Jewish community that serves as the voice of conscience and works against Semitism and xenophobia Clarity and integrity. “

This morning the Jewish History Museum invited community members, guides from our historic district, Barrio Viejo, …

Posted by Jewish History Museum on Monday August 12th, 2019

Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, executive director of the American Jewish Museums Council, said she saw Moyo as an inspirational leader at a time when the role of Jewish museums is evolving.

“Gugulethu is a thought leader in the dialogue about American Jewish museums,” said Yaverbaum. “It provides new, thought-provoking directions for museums seeking social change and will help us find our way to healing communities in these challenging times.”

Moyo will use her diverse experiences to guide this course – starting with her own childhood in Zimbabwe.

“One of my earliest childhood memories is escaping home in 1983 and 1984 when I was 6 years old and hiding during the Gukurahundi atrocities that killed about 20,000 people from my ethnic group, Ndebele,” she said .

Zimbabwean soldiers from North Korea-trained Gukurahundi, the Crack Force Brigade, dressed in tracksuits greet Prime Minister Robert Mugabe as the Independence Day celebrations in Salisbury, Zimbabwe on April 18, 1982. (AP Photo)

The massacres, which stem from a rivalry between political parties, are classified as genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

“I grew up understanding that those in power can choose to wipe out a group of people who are opposed to the government or people of a different ethnic group. Regardless of the cause of the hatred, they can eliminate the other group,” Moyo said.

Moyo, 45, is the daughter of an internationally recognized post-conflict constitutional researcher who now teaches at Cornell Law School. Seeing it as an opportunity to become a lawyer to work for democratic change in Zimbabwe, she earned a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Zimbabwe Harare in 1996. After serving as assistant to the executive board of the CEO of the Zimbabwean pension fund for the mining industry, Moyo earned another bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Oxford in England.

Upon her return to Zimbabwe, she was an internal advisor to Zimbabwe’s only independent newspaper, coordinating a team of lawyers who questioned the government’s campaign to censor and shut down independent media. In 2003, she was beaten and detained while cracking down on the press and political opposition in an incident that received international attention.

“Unfortunately, things haven’t gotten better,” she said of Zimbabwe.

Illustrative: A seller reads a newspaper on the streets of Harare on January 5, 2021 as Zimbabwe instituted a 30-day lockdown to contain the surge in COVID-19 infections that threaten to overwhelm the healthcare sector. (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Moyo left Zimbabwe to become a program attorney and media consultant for the International Bar Association in London. Five years later, she founded Media Defense, the first legal aid organization to defend media freedom worldwide.

Moyo said she saw a clear link between this work and the role that Holocaust museums can play.

“Much of the work that human rights lawyers and defenders do would not, in my opinion, be necessary if people were educated about rights, tolerance and differences,” she said.

Moyo began researching Judaism as a young adult, inspired by Jewish human rights lawyers in South Africa who represented black anti-apartheid activists there. She names George Bizos, a Holocaust survivor who represented Nelson Mandela in the trial that led to his 27-year imprisonment, “one of my chosen Jewish ancestors.”

Then, in 2003, Moyo met the man who would become her husband, Joshua Polacheck, then in the US Foreign Service and posted at the US Embassy in Harare. Polacheck, a Jew, had spent part of his childhood with his parents, Indian health workers, on Native American reservations before settling in Tucson as a teenager.

Sixth and I am Rabbi Shira Stutman. (Courtesy of Sixth and I / via JTA)

In 2011, Moyo and Polacheck lived in Washington, DC, where they worked for the Sixth & I Synagogue. Chief Rabbi Shira Stutman said she came to know Moyo as a “deeply connected Jew, creative and brilliant thinker and eternal learner.” She has a big heart and a curious mind. “

Stutman said one of her favorite memories of Moyo, who formally converted with Stutman’s assistance, actually came after the couple left Washington.

“I have so many stories to tell, such as traveling to Israel together, studying the Torah, or just laughing at one thing or another,” said Stutman. “But one of my favorite Gugu stories is the year she took the Sixth & I Adult B’nai Mitzvah course. In the middle of the year she and her husband moved to New Delhi, where he had been sent by the Foreign Service. But she was so determined to attend the class that she would get up at 4:30 in the morning to use Skype.

“We still miss her and Joshua here in DC, but we are so lucky they ended up somewhere that they can all thrive.”

Although Jewish tradition discourages asking if someone is a Jew, Moyo welcomes questions about their path to Judaism.

Here is the end of our time with an extremely intelligent group of ESL students from Catalina High School.

Posted by Jewish History Museum on Saturday April 22nd, 2017

“The tradition of not asking is pleasant and good,” she said, but at the same time it can mean not having an opportunity to inform about the variety of Jewish experiences if one does not tell stories about people who become converts and why .

“At this point, if we’re all talking about inclusivity, these stories should be told,” she said, adding that it is awkward for people to ask “because they think you are not Jewish, because they make assumptions about it what a jew is person looks like. “

These assumptions, Moyo said, are exactly the ones the museum wants to dispel under her leadership.

I am particularly interested in perhaps complicating the story we tell about Jewish identity

“I am particularly interested in perhaps complicating the story we tell about Jewish identity,” she said.

Moyo also takes inspiration from stories on her husband’s side. His father was a civil rights activist who was arrested and beaten in Mississippi in 1964. His grandfather Walter Polacheck – the great grandfather of her 6 year old daughter, as she notes – was a doctor who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war in Europe he was sent to Nuremberg, where he tried the Nazi leaders for war crimes.

“This is the story that we often talk and ponder in our family, and also a really complicated experience of being a Jewish-American soldier,” at that time and place as many of his own extended families were wiped out in the Holocaust, she said.

Until recently, the family included several Holocaust survivors. She said, “There are many very personal reasons why this work is important.”

An expanded version of this story originally appeared in the Arizona Jewish Post.

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