El Paso Holocaust Museum Provides a Profound Look at History

I've been away on another adventure so I'm late in posting my  travel article for the Fort Bliss Bugle in El Paso, Texas.  My last article was published over a week ago on the El Paso Holocaust Museum.  It's an excellent exhibit, free to the public.  Here's a link to the copy online since the paper copy is now  out of print.  

EP Holocaust Museum provides a profound look at history

A haunting life-sized picture of victims in Europe’s many concentration camps during World War II is placed behind a model camp, giving it a life-like quality.

A haunting life-sized picture of victims in Europe’s many concentration camps during World War II is placed behind a model camp, giving it a life-like quality.

Located at the corners of Yandell Drive and Oregon Street is something you might not expect from a Southwestern border town such as El Paso: a Holocaust museum. Usually Holocaust exhibitions are a fixture in big cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, so experiencing the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center is truly a treasure for this area.

Trying to uncover the Jewish-El Paso connection leads to the discovery of how the museum came about in the first place. It turns out that a Holocaust survivor named Henry Kellen immigrated to the United States in 1946 with his wife and ended up settling in El Paso. It wasn’t until many decades later, in the 1980s, that Kellen, who, like other survivors, didn’t discuss his experiences about the Holocaust publicly, learned that some conspiracy theorists denied the existence of these horrific events in Nazi Germany and other parts of Europe. That’s when Kellen began collecting authentic artifacts and memorabilia to educate the public about the reality of the atrocities committed during World War II. As his collection grew, interest in it grew, and as one thing led to another, the museum opened in 1994 in El Paso.

Kellen lost his entire family to the Holocaust in Europe, except one nephew.

What exactly is the Holocaust? The museum’s website describes it as “the state-sponsored systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1938 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims – six million were murdered; gypsies, the handicapped and Poles were also targeted for genocide or decimation for racial, ethnic or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war and political dissidents, also suffered oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.”

The museum itself is a beautifully designed interactive memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It lays out in chronological order a timeline of events that can be walked through and contemplated. Beginning with Life in Europe before the Nazi Party, and the Rise of the Nazi Party, to the Hall of the Righteous, with examples of those who tried to help the Jews and the Liberation by the Allied Forces, each room in the museum leaves a distinct impression. One may be somber, one may be hopeful and the next may be alarming, but each room is designed with authenticity in mind to leave the visitor moved.

Nazi propaganda materials line the wall in one of the rooms at the El Paso Holocaust Museum.

Nazi propaganda materials line the wall in one of the rooms at the El Paso Holocaust Museum.

As the rooms in the museum are themed – that is, they convey a particular event or message – the visitor can feel like he or she is walking alongside the Jews as they boarded the cattle cars and trains which carted them off to concentration camps or walking through the street in Europe where some act of violence had just occurred. The artifacts in the museum alone are worth the visit. There are actual Nazi uniforms and weapons, Nazi propaganda in the form of newspapers, magazines, cartoons and posters, historical photographs and even items from Nazi concentration camps. Kellen acquired “shower heads” in 1989 from a camp in Poland after people had found them in one of the gas chambers. These shower heads are among the items in the museum.

There is only one thing missing from the museum, and that is the mention of Christians. Timelines and descriptions throughout the museum describe those persecuted along with the Jews by the Nazis to be homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents and so on, and this is all true, but Catholics in particular were also a major target of the Nazis. Many priests and nuns died alongside Jews in the concentration camps and helped hide Jews from Hitler.

Pope Pius XII, who was pope during WWII, has been gravely misunderstood as not being vocal enough in defense of the Jews but in fact he has been an outspoken critic of the Nazi party. So outspoken in fact that every speech or rebuke against the Nazis from Pope Pius XII resulted in retaliation against the Jews. That retaliation took the form of inquisitions and violence against the very people the Pope was trying to defend. A German official was granted an audience with the Pope and pointed this out, warning of more retaliation against the Jewish people. This was the Pontiff’s dilemma; to continue to speak out for the Jews which would result in their immediate deaths or to use restraint and not provoke the Nazis. He chose the latter. For this, Pope Pius XII has been accused of not defending the Jewish people, although it was widely understood at the time by Jews that his silence would benefit them.

In 1943, after the ouster of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Hitler planned an attack on the Vatican to take it over and kidnap Pope Pius XII. Indeed, the pope provided sanctuary for many Jews inside the Vatican and in his own private quarters.

Pope Francis said of Pope Pius last week:

“We need to remember that before he was seen as the great defender of the Jews. He hid many in convents in Rome and in other Italian cities, and also in the residence of Castel Gandolfo. Forty-two babies, children of Jews and other persecuted who sought refuge there were born there, in the Pope’s room, in his own bed. Was it better for him not to speak so that more Jews would not be killed or for him to speak?”

Miep Gies, who hid Anne Frank and her family and preserved her famous diary, was Catholic. Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, volunteered to take the place of a Jew sentenced to death. Priests and nuns hid Jewish children in monasteries and convents throughout Europe saving many thousands of lives. The list goes on and on.

Whether Christians are ignored in the El Paso Holocaust Museum because of bias or misunderstanding, it is important for people to know that, theological differences aside, Christians went to great pains to protect and hide the Jews in Europe at great risk and sacrifice. Christians were also targets of Hitler yet rose to the occasion to protect them and in doing so created a bond between the two religions in a way that is worthy of recognition.

This detail aside, the El Paso Holocaust Museum truly does offer a profound look back at the Holocaust to share the lessons of tolerance and the value of human life.

For more information visit www.elpasoholocaustmuseum.org or call 915-351-0048.