In a decade or so, everyone who fought in World War II, everyone in Europe whose life was impacted by the war, and every Jew who faced the horror of Nazi death camps and survived will be gone. Years keep unfolding. We keep aging and eventually pass onto whatever is next. What remains is the history, either in books or, more likely today, in digital archives.
To preserve the history of one of the most heinous times in the 20th century, Henry Kellen, a survivor of the Holocaust who settled in El Paso in 1946, established the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center. This museum incorporates multimedia, informative panels, video histories, artifacts, and life-size recreations immersing visitors in the Germany of the National Socialists from 1933 to 1945.
Because it is a study center, it is also offers presentations by survivors and historians. On February 11, at 6 p.m., Maria Spronk Hughes and her daughter, Yvonne Ward Hughes, will talk about their book, The Red Handkerchief — a memoir of Maria’s wartime experience.
Maria and her sister, Catharina, two Dutch women, devoted their lives to saving Jews, an act that landed them in the Vught Concentration Camp in Western Europe. The red handkerchief, handed out as part of camp uniform, became a symbol of hope for women captives. The story, written by Yvonne as told by her mother and aunt, is the subject of the February 11 event. You’ll learn, first-hand, why the archivist of the Holocaust Museum in Houston, where the red handkerchief was put on display, was astounded by it when Yvonne presented to her.
In the video introduction to the museum, Kellen tells visitors the Nazi’s murdered 11 million people — six million Jews and five million Christians. “The Nazis,” he says, “were as much anti-Christian as they were anti-Semitic.” At the end of his introduction, he quotes George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Kellen, whose Polish name was Kacenelenboger, was forced — with 30,000 other Jews — into the Kovno ghetto. He, his wife Julia, and Jerry, their eightyear-old nephew — along with five other people — fled the ghetto and were hidden by Andrius Urbonas and his family on their farm. The rest of Kellen’s family perished in the Holocaust.
In El Paso, Kellen began collecting photos and artifacts of the Holocaust, which was housed in the conference room at the El Paso Jewish Federation. Eventually, Miriam and Louis Rosenbaum provided resources to build a museum on federation grounds. Unfortunately, an electrical fire destroyed the building in 2001. The current museum, on the corner of Oregon and Yandell Streets, opened in 2008.
Kellen was insistent on establishing the museum because of Holocaust denial across America in the 1980s, a fallacy that continues to this day.
“We don’t put a lot of credence in people who deny the Holocaust,” says Jamie Flores, education director. “A lot of denial comes out of ignorance and, at the root of it, anti-Semitism. In El Paso, we encounter a lot of lack of knowledge, but not too much denial. People who deny the Holocaust don’t understand what actually occurred. They don’t know the survivors or the eye-witnesses. By using a lot of our survivor testimony, personal stories, and personal artifacts, we show what really happened.
The mission of the museum is to honor those who perished in the Holocaust, oppose prejudice and bigotry, and educate visitors, particularly young people, by exposing them through testimonials, photographs, and Nazi-produced documents to explain what happened.
A tour of the museum takes visitors through a series of galleries from the rise of the Third Reich and use of propaganda, to Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass — to life in ghettos, mass murder, and boxcars filled with Jewish prisoners transported to concentration camps. One galley focuses on Hitler’s “Final Solution,” gassing and cremating hundreds of thousands of people. There are photos taken by Germans that document these events and brief videos that explain the history. All written panels are in both Spanish and English.
In one display case, there are shower heads. Escorted from filthy boxcars, Jews were ordered to undress and told they would enjoy a shower. Only instead of water, these shower heads dispensed Zyklon B, a lethal hydrogen-cynanide gas. In another area is a replication of a concentration camp barracks, the interior of which has life-size photos of emaciated men.
So visitors do not leave with only images of atrocities, the final galleries tell the story of resistance fighters, Allied liberation, and of those who risked their lives to save Jews — people the museum calls the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
On the “Righteous” wall is a panel telling the story from Denmark. It reads, in part, “The Danes organized a nationwide plan to smuggle its Jewish population to neutral Sweden. Over a two-week period, Danish fishermen ferried 7,220 Danish Jews and their 680 non-Jewish family members to Sweden.”
Another panel tells the story of Dorothea Neff. It says she “was a leading stage actress who risked her life to hide Lilli Wolff, a Jewish fashion designer. When Lilli developed breast cancer and required hospitalization, Dorothea created a fictional identity for her and, using her acting skills, was able to successfully carry out the ploy so Lilli received the needed surgery.”
Finally, there’s the story of Feng-Shan Ho, who was the Chinese consul general in Vienna. According to the information on another panel, he issued “visas to Shanghai to all who requested them, even to those who intended to travel elsewhere but needed a visa to leave the country. This he did even when his superior in Berlin forbid it. It is not known how many lives he saved.”
“We want people — especially young people — to learn when hatred, or discrimination, or even bullying go unchecked, it can lead to mass atrocities,” Flores says. “But in the face of that, one person can make a difference, even if they’re only 16 years old. They can do something to make the world a better place. If we can impart that lesson maybe we can prevent genocide in the future.”
The hands of time continue to turn. Once El Paso was home to about 90 Holocaust survivors. “Now that number is very small,” Flores adds, “Only about five people. But their legacy lives on.”
The El Paso Holocaust Museum is open Tuesday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. There is no admission fee, but donations are welcomed.