Illusions of Grandeur

He's done with art. Now Bill Tonnesen wants to build a Holocaust memorial in Phoenix

More than anything, Tonnesen's appeal lies in his exuberance. When he talks about his projects, his eyes gleam, and he luxuriates in the details.

"Anything he thinks is worth doing, he throws his heart and soul into," says his wife, Pilar. "He doesn't do anything halfway."

It's hard not to be swept along.

Adler's arm still bears her tattoo from Auschwitz.
Peter Scanlon
Adler's arm still bears her tattoo from Auschwitz.
Risa Mallin, director of the Jewish Historical Society, 
wants to make sure there is enough money for both the memorial and restoration of the old temple.
Peter Scanlon
Risa Mallin, director of the Jewish Historical Society, wants to make sure there is enough money for both the memorial and restoration of the old temple.

After he discussed the memorial with Helen Handler and showed her his studio, she put him in touch with David Kader, the survivor group's president. Kader and Tonnesen became fast friends, to the point that Tonnesen now calls Kader his "second best friend" in the world.

"My favorite thing in the whole world is getting together with David, having dinner, and talking about the memorial," he says.

As for Kader, he explains that Tonnesen prefers to communicate via fax. One day Kader's fax machine broke, and the professor was balking over the annoyance of fixing it. "I cannot have you without a fax!" Tonnesen cried. That day, Tonnesen's assistant showed up at Kader's door with a new fax machine.

Even that wasn't enough. Tonnesen wanted to buy Kader a cell phone. Kader explained that he was either at home or in his office or in class. And if the phone rang in class, he said, he couldn't answer it anyway. "Don't give the number to anyone else," Tonnesen instructed. "And if it's me, you answer it."

"He's an exceptional talent," Kader says. "With creative people, you either take to them or you don't. In some ways I really do love the guy. . . . Do you know the expression verbissen?" he asks. "It means 'bitten up by.' And that's Bill. He really is a little obsessed by this."

Sitting behind the shiny minimalist rectangle of his desk, Tonnesen does not deny this, or even try to downplay it. The Holocaust, he pronounces, "has taken over my life."

He's fascinated, he says, with the workings of the Nazi machine, particularly "all the complexities that go along with getting people to go into a place, and take off their clothes, and be killed, and have their children be killed," he says, without violent resistance or chaos. "It's amazing."

Behind him is a stack of books nearly two feet high: A History of the Jews, The Secret Diaries of Hitler's Doctor, and three copies of The Enduring Spirit. In addition to the memorial, he says, he plans to start a lending library for books about the Holocaust, based out of his studio.

"I am now in a mode where every day, I watch film footage of Holocaust documentaries, or read about World War II, or read survivor testimonials," he says.

With Tonnesen at the helm, memorial plans expanded. The group was originally looking at a spot at the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale. But the space there just wasn't big enough, Tonnesen says, or important enough.

"It was such an insular environment," he pronounces. "It would have been preaching to the choir. And there were some design constraints."

So he and Kader zeroed in on a site in downtown Phoenix. The Arizona Jewish Historical Society had just purchased the first temple in Phoenix, the original Temple Beth Israel, which sits behind the Burton Barr Central Library at Culver Street off Central Avenue. Along with a major project to restore the temple, the society was planning to knock down some of the other buildings at the site, creating an ideal location for a memorial.

Tonnesen loved it.

Sitting in her sunny central Phoenix living room, Ella Adler explains that she owes her life to Oskar Schindler.

As a teenaged prisoner, she explains, she was emaciated and sick at Auschwitz. She surely would have died had she not been chosen for transport to a work camp in the present-day Czech Republic. Later, reading Schindler's List, she learned Schindler had bribed the Germans to make the transports possible.

She weighed 55 pounds when the Russians liberated the camp.

"I was an empty shell," she says. "I didn't think I had any soul. I didn't think anything good could happen."

In 1946, Adler was on the first refugee ship arriving in New York City. But the city was hardly the paradise she'd anticipated. Her new husband died of a heart condition, and a collection officer threatened deportation if she couldn't pay the hospital bills. When she called the city to find out bus schedules, the bureaucrat on the other end of the phone snarled at her to learn English.

Somehow, she flourished. In New York, she met Harry Adler, a German-born Jew who fled Europe during the war, only to return via Omaha Beach as an American soldier. The couple married and eventually moved to Phoenix, and Ella enrolled in college, earning her master's in social work. She started speaking at schools.

"The feelings are so painful, tearing you apart," she says. "But I have developed the strength to realize I need to leave something. I am not a painter or a writer, but I am a human being who was able to turn it around. That rather than a victim, I became a survivor."

In 1983, the Adlers were among a small group that commissioned a Holocaust monument for the Beth El Congregation at 13th Avenue and Glendale in Phoenix. It cost around $8,000, Harry Adler says. They all chipped in.

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Lawrence Lawless Yanez
Lawrence Lawless Yanez

This is the email I recieved from the owner Mr. Bill Tonnesen.

"u are a dishonest person. You are not a part of what we are trying to create and you are not welcome as a tenant or a visitor. When you see me on the property please do not speak to me. Do not speak to my employees. Also do not come to our house or office or other rental properties. Most importantly do not approach or speak to my wife, Sam S., Sam R., Arianne or our partner Thomas."

Now, if I were dishonest I wouldn't be so adamant about sticking to my lease now would I? Honesty? 2 bedroom advertized at $550-not true, 45 inch flat panel tv with every refurbished apt?-not true, haven't locked my door when I leave anywhere because the key to the door doesn't work, recieved mail key a month and a half later, major construction AT the doors and windows at all hours of the day, sand blasting sand inside the apt, kitchen and restroom flooded, front door doesn't stay closed, wall mounted heater doesn't work, electric outlet in bathroom not to code. A far as his "crime free" environment, this is questionable. In fact I was here for a tennent who was involved with drunk and disorderly domestic dispute and let her use my phone to call 911. He has lied to all of us, he has treated us with disrespect and trys to force us to HIS view of how "life" should be, cheated us out of the necessary needs. he is diversionary and non-attentive to his tennents as proven when I went TO him to talk face to face as a responsible adult. The lease is written as is and is LEGALLY BINDING. Now that this issue has risen he wants to fight back. Dispite everyone in the arts community has said negatively about him I have admired his work. I can't say that I am charmed any longer by this individual. And he says I'M dishonest?


Just out of curiosity, which property are you a tenant at? I'm currently living in a Bill Tonnesen rental property and I'm having a wonderful experience. It kind of bums me out that somebody isn't!

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