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El Paso's Holocaust Museum, founded by survivor 30 years ago, fights deniers

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El Paso has a Holocaust museum. Why in El Paso?

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Holocaust survivor Henry Kellen founded the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center 30 years ago, after escaping from the Kovno (Lithuania) ghetto, hiding with a farmer until liberation, and then emigrating to the west Texas city.

Kellen's first wife Julia, whom he credits with saving his life throughout the Holocaust, kept telling him "'We have to make it -- I have to see my sister in El Paso, whom I haven't seen in 20 years,'" he said in his audio-visual history with the USC Shoah Foundation. "'And we have to see the end of Hitler.'"

Out of the 30,000 Kovno (Kaunas) ghetto inmates, only about 4,000 survived. He, his wife and young nephew Jerry, whom they adopted, survived, but all his other family members were among the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust (Shoah).

Henry (born Heniek Kacenelenbogen in Lodz, Poland, and educated as an engineer in France), Julia, and Jerry arrived in El Paso in 1946.

Kellen and his wife had promised each other they would never speak publicly about their horrific experiences.

But he broke that promise in 1984, due to a surge of Holocaust denial, by beginning a small museum within El Paso's Jewish Community Center.

Thanks to a $250,000 contribution by Louis and Miriam Rosenbaum, plus other community donations, a full museum opened in 1994.

However, an electrical fire burned down the display in 2001, and destroyed about 80 percent of the collection. But the community raised $2.5 million, thanks partly to fundraising dinners with keynote speakers such as President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the current museum opened in 2008 in El Paso's Museum District.

The museum's entrance is emblazoned with these words from the late poet Maya Angelou: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

These and all the wall texts are in Spanish as well as English. "You Are My Witness" "Eres Mi Testigo", says one of the first signs.

In an introductory audiotape, Kellen says that the Museum "reminds us how prejudice corrupts civilized people, a lesson that's especially important today."

The intimate museum provides a concise but encompassing, compelling narrative, augmented with original artifacts including:

  • A Jewish yellow patch worn by Henry Kellen at the time he, his wife, and nephew were liberated by the Soviet red army July 31, 1944.
  • Shower heads for poisonous gas, children's shoes, and other tragic items from the abandoned concentration camp Majdanek near Lublin, Poland.
  • A Torah that had been hidden in a farmhouse attic for half a century in Poland. Kellen made two trips to his native Poland, and smuggled out these items in the 1980s when Poland was under Communist rule.
  • A concentration camp inmate's uniform.
  • An identification card, with a large red "J" for Jew.

Among the Museum's haunting reconstructions are a cattle car, a concentration camp barracks, and a crematorium oven door.

Walking through the railroad car, docent Rick Armour, a retired Army Major, tells visitors about:

  • Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" and his horrifying experiments "on at least 1500 sets of twins. Nazis believed twins had a magical gene."
  • The death march of 66,000 inmates, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot, from Auschwitz in the frigid January 1945 as the liberating Russian forces approached.
  • The Nazis' use of cyanide gas, Zyklon B, to kill Jews -- and used also "to disinfect clothing of Mexicans crossing the border into El Paso."

Docent Armour and other volunteers and staff give various educational talks at the Museum.

"The Museum in El Paso and others (more than a dozen Holocaust Museums in the U.S.) are very powerful instruments to fight deniers," Kellen said in his Shoah Foundation testimony. "I hope the younger generation will learn what happened, and there will be peace, and humanity will learn a lesson from the history of the Holocaust and the Holocaust will never happen again."

[According to the just-released Anti-Defamation League's "The ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism" survey, two out of three people surveyed have either never heard of the Holocaust, or do not believe historical accounts. The ADL surveyed 53,100 adults in more than 100 countries and territories.]

Kellen died July 3, just two days before his 99th birthday. All of Kellen's work, and especially his Museum, that attracts about 25,000 visitors a year, are very powerful instruments for truth, understanding, and peace.

For more info: El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center, www.elpasoholocaustmuseum.org, 715 N. Oregon, El Paso, Texas, 915-351-0048. Free admission.

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