Tony Gonczarow honored with Hoosier Upstander award

The Paper

Tony Gonczarow, the son of a Holocaust survivor, has been selected as the recipient of the 2021 Hoosier Upstander award by the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Indiana Holiday Commission and the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.

The honor is part of the Commission’s 23rd annual Holocaust Remembrance Program.

I am completely humbled and honored to even be considered,” Gonczarow, a science teacher at Southmont, told The Paper. “I really feel the award is more of a reflection of what everybody in our sixth through 12 programs have been doing, and for the administration for allowing us to do it. It’s almost – I try not to think about it too much. It gets me too emotional.”

He has good reason. His father was a young teenager growing up in Gorlice, Poland. The elder Gonczarow lived with his mother and five sisters after his father had abandoned the family. He became involved with the resistance and was engaged in smuggling activities before being caught. That sent him to a series of places that included the Gestapo headquarters in Krakow, then Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Flossenburg. He was finally liberated in April of 1945.

After a hospitalization, he was sent to a displaced persons camp in Germany. Because of the communist regime that had taken over in Poland he didn’t want to return home so he was drafted into the 4128th Labor Service Co. of the U.S. Army, also known as the Polish Guard. He did everything from guard warehouses to guarding German soldiers. In a twist of fate, he ended up being a guard outside at the Nuremberg Trials. Tony Gonczarow said that his father spoke about seeing men who were responsible for many atrocities during the Holocaust being marched in and out.

Eventually, the elder Gonczarow came to the U.S. where Tony was born in 1961, after an older brother and sister.

It only seems natural then that the Holocaust would hold the interest of a man who would eventually teach science – and it was only natural that he would be one of the local citizens selected when a trip to tour concentration camps was set up three years ago.

“I can’t say enough about the Hoosier Heartland State Bank trip (the sponsor for the trip with Holocaust survivor Eva Kor in 2018),” Gonczarow explained. “After that we were approached by Kelly Taylor of the Community Foundation and she had a person who wanted to remain anonymous who was willing to fund Holocaust education in our community.”

That trip, though, wasn’t the first time Gonczarow had visited the camps. He said he went there as a 15-year-old in 1976.

“Traveling there as an adult and having my own children who were teenagers – just really thinking of the age my father was at, and the other people who were in the camp at that time, it put everything in a new light,” he said. “I think what really impacts you when you visit Auschwitz is the size of it. This complex that is about a square mile in size was built to either exterminate (Jewish prisoners) when they arrive or slowly work them to death.

“As an adult I looked at it differently. Standing there . . . and just looking at the size and the chimneys that still stand at each of the barracks . . . ”

Gonczarow has been able to share not only his father’s story, but the experience of the trip many times and in multiple ways. Still, how does a science teacher incorporate the Holocaust?

“I have to give a shout-out to Vincennes University. I teach through Vincennes and one of the things we have to cover in our courses involves bioethics . . . There have been things that have gone on throughout the history of the United States and other countries that have involved experimentation. So I am able to work in some of that stuff.”

And it’s not just at Vincennes. Not by a long shot.

“In our sixth through 12 grade . . . we put together a team – we’ve been fortunate to be able to purchase books for the library, readings at various grade levels, supplies and materials, take field trips and bring in guest speakers,” he said. “One of the most important things we’ve been able to do is offer professional development for our educators on how to teach the Holocaust. It’s not an easy subject to teach. As with anything, I think the more comfortable an individual becomes with the material the easier it is to teach. That really has been a game changer in our schools.”

He has seen the impact it’s made at South.

“I really feel the people from the Civil Rights Commission and the Jewish Relations Council have noticed the things we’re doing at Southmont High School, to not only further our mission, but to further their mission as well,” he said. “Our school is not a racially or ethnically diverse school. But yet as we see our students interact with each other on a daily basis, they are able to demonstrate that they have respect for other peoples’ beliefs, religions and certainly race and ethnic backgrounds.”

It sounds like a lesson a lot of people could learn from.

Gonczarow’s father passed away about 20 years ago. But asked what his father might say about his son being the one person in the entire state selected for this honor, Gonczarow paused.

“I’m sure he would be proud,” he started. “But one thing we all learned from him is to work hard and do our very best. I think he would look at what I’m trying to accomplish and he’d be smiling.”

Tony Gonczarow, a science teacher at Southmont High School, will be honored with the Hoosier Upstander Award at the 23rd annual awards program at the Indiana Statehouse on Tuesday from noon to 1:30 p.m. The Hoosier Upstander Award is given to an individual or organization who has shown a commitment to using the lessons of the Holocaust to inspire Hoosiers to stand up in the fight against hate and bigotry, and to actively promote respect and understanding. The event will be streamed online via