El Paso Weekend - Part 4: The El Paso Holocaust Museum

Friday, May 11, 2012

I initially included this with my previous post that included lunch at Whataburger and a drive through the UTEP campus, but before publishing, I thought it deserved it's own post.   

After lunch and driving through the UTEP campus, we headed to our next destination, The El Paso Holocaust Museum.  I'll be the first to admit that I had pretty low expectations of this museum; maybe it was the idea of a Holocaust museum in the area of the predominately Catholic and Christian Hispanic culture let alone in the middle of the desert seemed... unusual to me. 

WWII and the Holocaust has always been my favorite era to study in school.  Something about modern history and how recent the events were blew my mind, even at a young age.  At thirteen, I visited Washington D.C. on a class trip and visited the The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The only exhibit I remember is famous pile of shoes and in hindsight I wish I was a bit older and had appreciated it even more.

I have driven by The El Paso Holocaust Museum on every single trip; the museum sits on Yandell Drive, the road that leads to I-10 on my commute back to my hotel or apartment, but I had never gone in.  The small, brick building appeared to be about the size of a basketball court and has bars over the few windows.  Many times I thought, "I should check that out." but never made it a priority to visit.  This weekend adventure created the perfect opportunity to explore.  

We arrived at the museum shortly after it opened at 1pm and were greeted by an armed security guard.  At first, I didn't think much of it, but I read in a newspaper clipping on display that the previous museum burned down.  It didn't mention the cause, but I couldn't help to wonder if it was an example of the anti-semitic attitude the museum hoped to prevent.

I don't know where to begin to describe the museum.  It was laid out with smaller, connected rooms and followed a timeline from the end of WWI to the liberation of the camps in 1945.  Each room contained a timeline of events, a short video played and very well curated displays of priceless artifacts from daily life pre-war, Hitler's rise to power and the exile of Jews across Europe.  Movie posters from Nazi propaganda followed by a fake storefront and the back story of kristallnacht led into a replica rail car used transport millions of Jews to Concentration Camps across Europe.  

I can't get over how well done this museum was; the layout and lighting allowed visitors to focus on the exhibits which created such a somber and moving experience.  Most visitors stood in silence as they read the placards identifying each piece.  One of the last rooms had personal items recovered from a Concentration Camp; glasses, clothing, a non-functioning shower head (used to trick people into the gas chamber under the guise of showering after their long trip to the camp) and the photos of prisoners in their striped camp uniform and an actual uniform were especially moving to me. 

The museum was so well done, it was emotionally exhausting to experience.  Thoughtfully, the last room was all white (in contrast to the dark walls throughout the rest of the museum), with quotes from survivors and photos with mini-biographies of Holocaust survivors that later lived in or near El Paso.  We stayed in there for a few minutes, the room was clearly designed to provide visitors with peace and comfort after an emotionally draining journey.  

We spent about an hour at the museum free of charge, and made a donation to their non-profit organization.   As we left, we were greeted by the warm but blinding sun and slowly emerged from our somber moods.  I cannot recommend this museum enough; no matter your level of interest in this era of history or your current knowledge of events, you will walk away from the experience having learned an immeasurable amount and with a deeper understanding of the events in Europe between the mid 1930s to 1945 and beyond.  

I would absolutely give The El Paso Holocaust Museum an A+ grade.  

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