Wednesday, February 20, 2013

El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center

I wrote this review fall 2011 for one of my public history courses. I revisited the museum in January 2013, during which time I took the pictures included. At this time, a multimedia exhibit called "The Memory Project" had taken the place of the introduction video. I observed no other changes to the museum.
The El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center
As I approached the El Paso Holocaust Museum, one question found its way into the forefront of my thoughts: what on earth is a museum about events that happened a world away doing in El Paso, Texas? The answer became clearer as I began my tour. Prior to entering the galleries, visitors watch a short introductory film, which covers the Jewish experience prior to the Holocaust and the story of the museum's founding. Henry Kellen, a survivor of the Holocaust, founded the museum in 1984 as a single room in the Jewish Community Center, using his personal story and collection of artifacts. A plaque in the memorial section of the museum reveals that his wife, also a survivor, died one year prior to the museum's founding. It's possible that her death inspired Mr. Kellen to honor both the dead and the survivors by teaching a new generation about the atrocities that swallowed Europe in the twentieth century. In 1994, he moved the museum to its own building, which tragically burned in 2001. The present museum opened in 2007.
A couple of cabinets with a bunch of Nazi artifacts, many of which don't
have any labels.
This very personal museum tells a story about the millennia of oppression and persecution faced by Jews, which culminated in the twentieth century with the Holocaust. As the museum lost many of its original artifacts  in the 2001 fire, it relies on video, timelines, and dynamic environments convey its narrative. I followed the chronological path of Germany's Jews as Hitler's rise to power shattered the illusion of peace after ages of struggle. From there, my path continued past the devastation of Kristalnacht, through deportations and ghettos, to the concentration camps. My tour concluded with the liberation of the camps and memorials honoring those who died, those who lived, and those who helped others escape death. The introductory video continued throughout the galleries, explaining the pertinent events with segments like "The Rise of Nazism," "Deportation from the Ghettos," and "The Final Solution." Besides the timelines, I saw little text to augment these videos, which used still photographs and narration a la Ken Burns. My impression was that this museum wanted visitors to experience history, rather than read it.
The jarring transition into Nazi Germany.
The construction of the actual galleries contributed greatly to the active experience. My tour began conventionally, staring at an example of an twentieth century Jewish dining room behind a glass case. Very little distinguished it as "Jewish," suggesting that the Jews had finally found acceptance in European society after millennia of persecution. A helpful timeline on the opposite wall detailed this lengthy struggle. This portrayal of normalcy enhanced the shock I felt upon entering the next gallery, where the walls featured large images of Adolf Hitler and crowds of uniformed Nazis tinted a vibrant and jarring red.The center cases enclosed Nazi headgear, lit from below, adding to the sinister feeling in the room. My tour through Nazi Germany continued with a wall of reproduction anti-Semitic propaganda posters, cartoons, and advertisements. Now in a German street, I saw a shop front destroyed during the violence of Kristalnacht.
Unfortunately, a cartoony quality to this environment evoked thoughts of Disneyworld rather than disaster. Past Kristalnacht, I saw a train car protruding from the wall of the next gallery. If I hadn't recognized it already, at this point I found it impossible to deny the influence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in Washington D.C. in 1993. Upon my last visit to Washington, I had walked through just such a train car. On the other side of this train car, a staircase led me down to the entrance to a concentration camp. A guard tower with an obviously fake machine gun protected a small gate bearing the words "ARBEIT MACHT FREI." Like the Kristalnacht gallery, the small scale of these otherwise imposing structures made them almost comical. This gallery also included the facade of a barracks, an example of a gas chamber, and a reproduction of a crematorium oven. The story focused on the dehumanization and murder of prisoners in concentration camps. Any amusement I felt at the tiny gate and tower dissipated quickly. The rest of the museum serves as a memorial. The next gallery talked some about resistance, but an entire wall commemorated those who saved others from death, declared "The Righteous of the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. A few moments were spent on the liberation of the camps, where the museum found the opportunity to make a local connection. The images and stories of liberators from El Paso adorned the last wall in the gallery. The final room contained a memorial to both the dead and the survivors. One last local connection recognized all the survivors who settled in El Paso after escaping Europe.
A replica train car, similar to that at the United States Holocuast Memorial
Museum in Washington DC.
Quite plainly, this museum does not tell the entire story of the Holocaust, but the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. The videos occasionally mentioned Hitler's other victims as statistics or in passing, but every time the narrator referred to prisoners or victims as a group he used the word "Jews." This presents a rather narrow view of the Holocaust, possibly encouraged by the very personal nature of the museum. It does not represent an organization or government, but one man's desire that people remember what happened to his people. The narrative also makes no effort to place the Holocaust in the greater context of genocides throughout history. The final video segment went so far as to call it a unique event. Both that segment and the introductory film ask the question "why?" intending that the visitor ruminate on how people could have allowed or committed such monstrous acts. However, I felt that the museum answered their own question in regards to the Holocaust: Germany's vulnerability after the First World War created a power vacuum in which Adolf Hitler found it easy to convince people to follow him.
The display case of camp artifacts and the model guard tower.
I think any real explanation is much more complicated, but the museum did itself a disservice by not expanding its narrative to at least mention other genocides. One holocaust can be easily explained as an aberration, but a long history of mass murder forces visitors to ponder the "whys" and "hows." I found it surprising that the museum did not use this tactic to affect my emotions after making such obvious attempts to evoke emotional responses throughout the exhibits. Poetry, sculpture, and artwork all found places in galleries, where they were clearly meant to impact visitors emotionally (e.g. a statue of a suffering child next to the boxcar). I heard other attempts at sensationalism as my visit coincided with a field trip from a local high school. For the most part, I made my way through the museum alone, but after the boxcar I caught up with their group long enough to listen to the docent for a few minutes. I grimaced as I heard him describe how the Nazis made lampshades, book covers, soap, and other goods out of human skin and fat. As there is no historical evidence to support these claims, I felt a bit miffed that he passed this information along as fact to the unsuspecting group of students. The museum's narrow focus on Jewish suffering takes the visitor through an emotional journey, which loses some impact without further historical context.

After hearing about the devastation wrought by fire in 2001, it did not surprise me to find the museum lacking in material culture. What does remain came from the personal collections of Holocaust survivors in El Paso, who generously donated their memories or returned to the camps to collect new artifacts. However, the museum did not incorporate them well into the narrative shaped by video and environment. One or two artifacts found homes in other galleries, but the bulk of the collection resided in the sections on the rise of Nazism and the camps themselves. This first gallery includes several cases with a veritable hodge-podge of Nazi memorabilia. China, badges, uniforms, books, documents, trinkets, and weapons lay side by side with little explanation. Most objects have no explanatory text at all, much less any cohesive organization or narrative. I saw this jumble repeated in the camp gallery - a variety of relevant artifacts flung together in a case haphazardly. It seems to me that the museum divided their surviving collection into two categories and threw them in cases. This museum needs to work on incorporating artifacts into the narrative to support its flashy videos and galleries.

The final stop on my visit to any museum is the gift shop or bookstore. I think that the gift shop is just as much part of the museum as the galleries, because it is from there that visitors find tangible objects to help them remember or further explore what they learned. Therefore, an excellent gift shop should expand from the museum's focus to other relevant topics. The El Paso Holocaust Museum's shop boasted a small selection of souvenirs, books, and DVDs, which support its focused narrative. Almost all the books retold the experiences of Jewish groups or individuals during the Holocaust, including volumes appropriate for both children and adults. Of the other topics covered, I found one volume on other victims of the Holocaust, one book on Japanese internment camps, two books on Rwanda, one on genocide in general, and one on Holocaust denial. The collection of DVDs contained slightly more variation in genre and country of origin, but focused on the Jewish experience with one notable exception. Downfall, a 2004 German film, which witnesses Hitler's last days through the somewhat revisionist account of his secretary, Traudl Junge. Its presence among the several different versions of Anne Frank's tragic story continues to intrigue me.
Holocaust survivors who settled in El Paso.
Overall, I enjoyed my visit to the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center. Its narrative, though narrow or somewhat exclusionary in its focus, guided me through a clear and emotional history of Jewish suffering. I appreciated the modern influence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in creating the museum's environment and structure, but I think this museum could benefit from revisiting old fashioned museum work. Artifacts need more text and should contribute to the narrative, facts and figures need support and documentation, and all the galleries could use more text for those of us who want more information. The museum does a good job at incorporating personal narratives at the beginning and end, but the bulk of the story features no such personal connection. Nevertheless, this museum offers a reasonable introduction to the events of the Holocaust, though I hope most visitors seek supplemental information. I completed my thorough tour in an hour and a half, making it an easy trip for even the most impatient museumgoers.


  1. "I grimaced as I heard him describe how the Nazis made lampshades, book covers, soap, and other goods out of human skin and fat. As there is no historical evidence to support these claims, I felt a bit miffed that he passed this information along as fact to the unsuspecting group of students." Actually there are artifacts to prove everyone of these claims - even if none are on display at this museum - in fact, I suspect that most museums would refrain from publicly displaying such items to the general public out of concern for the dead, any surviving family, and the more sensitive visitors.

  2. There does appear to be a handful of these grotesque artifacts, but they seem to have only been found at Buchenwald. All the evidence I could find comes from Patton's Third Army. I also found an article written by a man who believed he worked in a human soap factory, but could not confirm this theory.

    The docent made it sound like the Nazis had large-scale factories at every concentration camp, not as isolated incidents at one camp.