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Borderlands: Henry Kellen Created El Paso Holocaust Museum 32 (2014-2015)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Henry Kellen Created El Paso Holocaust Museum

Article first published in Vol. 32, 2014-2015

By Tabatha Lynn Fuson, Yvanna Vargas, Hilda Delgado and Isabel Hernandez

In 1939, World War II began with Germany invading Poland. However, Jews in Germany had been restricted in many ways several years before. In 1934, Adolph Hitler had combined the offices of president and chancellor and had taken control of both state and military operations. In his quest to rid Germany of every Jew, Hitler would be responsible for a horrific event that some would later deny ever occurred: the Holocaust, as it became known, ended the lives of six million Jews and five million non-Jews. Some survived to tell the tale.

Hitler’s target populations lived miserably in districts known as ghettos. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, these ghettos were enclosed communities where Jews were sent to be separated from non-Jews during World War II. The Germans created thousands of ghettos across Europe; the first was established in Poland in 1939. While the Jews were being held in ghettos, Hitler and his army were planning the “final solution” to exterminate the Jewish population.

Camps were built for two purposes: forced labor and ultimately the extinction of the Jews. The first concentration camps that were established were in Germany after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933. More than 20,000 of these camps were established during the war.

Others that were sent to these camps were homosexuals, gypsies, Christians, the mentally and physically disabled, prisoners of war, political and religious dissidents and others whom Hitler considered as sub-human or non-Aryan. Millions would die from starvation, exhaustion, physical abuse and execution in camps.

Survivors of the camps had vivid memories of this event, but many maintained silence for years in order to try to find peace. Most suffered sleepless nights, nightmares and other physical and psychological manifestations caused by their unspeakable experiences.

""Image caption:  Henry Kellen talks about his experiences in a concentration camp in World War II. (Photo courtesy of the El Paso Times Archive)

Henry Kellen, founder of the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center in El Paso, Texas, was one of the few who managed to escape from a camp and later migrate to America. Kellen, his wife and nephew were the only survivors in his family. His father, mother, sister, brother, uncles and cousins perished during the Holocaust.

Henry Kellen made it his moral obligation to let the world know about the Holocaust. He changed the hearts of El Pasoans and others through his experience and determination to survive by educating us about some of the horrors that World War II produced in Europe.

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According to the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center, Kellen was born in Lodz, Poland, on July 5, 1915, as Heniek Kacenelenbogen. He had an older sister Sonia and brother Moniek. He received a mechanical and textile engineering degree from a French university in 1938. While he was in school, his family returned to Lithuania, where his parents had been born and where Kellen settled after graduation. Lithuania would be occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and overrun by the German Army in June 1941.

The Soviet Union began the destruction of normal Jewish life in Kovno (also known as Kaunas), the capital of Lithuania and the largest city, which had a highly intellectual Jewish community of 35,000 to 40,000, including one of Europe’s leading yeshivas. Jewish culture had flourished in Kovno with many organizations, schools, businesses and 40 synagogues. The Soviets abolished most of these institutions, arresting many Jews and sending others to Siberia, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum site.

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, violating their non-aggression pact, Soviet forces fled Kovno and pro-German Lithuanians began attacking and killing Jews, whom they blamed for the Soviet invasion. When the Nazis arrived in Kovno in June 1941, they greatly increased the restrictions limiting the freedom of Jews by forcing them to wear a yellow Star of David and to keep a 7 p.m. curfew. They were also prevented from attending their schools. The Germans began killing Jews in July 1941 in the forts that were built to defend the city. Kellen’s father was picked up on the street and shot. Things would get much worse within a few weeks, however.

In August 1941, the Nazis created the Kovno Ghetto, where about 30,000 Jews were transported from their homes and packed into crude houses with dirt floors and no running water or electricity. The Kacenelenbogen family was sent here, including Henry’s sister and nephew, who at that time were only visiting from Poland. It was in the ghetto that Henry Kellen married his wife Julia in 1941.

The entire family and other inmates became forced laborers. Everybody had a job. For example, Kellen’s mother and sister made uniforms for German soldiers at a factory while the males, including Kellen, built an airport.

“There was no gas installation in our camp. People were just shot. Or they died from malnutrition or disease. Of 30,000 inmates … only 2,500 survived,” Kellen told Becky Powers in the El Paso Times article “Surviving the Holocaust.”

""Image caption:  Henry Kellen opens up about the Holocaust. (Photo courtesy of the El Paso Times Archive)

According to Kellen, one day, posters were put up in the camp asking for male college graduates to assemble at a certain place one morning to select books from the city library. For some reason, Kellen decided not to attend. “My brother went and never came back. After the war we learned they were all taken out and shot,” said Kellen in a video on the El Paso Holocaust Museum website.

On Oct. 28, 1941, Kellen and the rest of the camp were told to assemble at a certain point in the camp. About 10,000 people were selected, and the next day Kellen watched as they marched uphill. All day long Kellen heard machine guns. In this “selection,” Kellen lost all of his cousins and uncles, as he explained in his interview with Powers.

In an El Paso Times article by Doug Pullen, Kellen explained that on March 27, 1944, the Nazis ordered all the children and the sick to be disposed of in the ghetto. He watched as German soldiers yanked babies from their mothers’ arms and tossed them into a truck. Kellen’s nephew, Jerry, was only eight years old, but because of malnutrition, he resembled a two-year-old child. Kellen’s sister hid Jerry behind a large pillow.

This “Kinder-Action” (Children’s Action) was one of the most brutal murders of hundreds of infants and children Kellen would see. His nephew survived, however. At this point, Kellen realized it was time to try to escape that horrendous place.

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While Kellen planned for a way to escape, his main concern was to hide his nephew and keep him alive. Meanwhile, a fellow prisoner, Yerachmiel Siniuk, had lost his arm working as a slave laborer at the same camp. Now disabled and unable to work, Siniuk knew the Germans would soon kill him. According to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous website, while working outside the ghetto, Yerachmiel’s brother-in-law came upon a poor Lithuanian farmer, Andrius Urbonas, and begged him to hide Yerachmiel.

Urbonas agreed only if Yerachmiel was able to reach the farm, 10 miles away from the camp. Yerachmiel managed to escape and reached the farm where he was warmly welcomed by Andrius, his wife, Maria, his 20 ­year old daughter, Ona, and Juozas, his 14-year-old son.

The family made a place for Yerachmiel and fed him, even though they were extremely poor. When Yerachmiel returned to the ghetto, he came upon Kellen, whom he had known before the war. He then led Kellen, Julia and Jerry and another Jewish family of four to the Urbonas farm.

“Ona brought food each day to the now eight Jews in hiding. She also washed their clothes. Juozas and Andrius would bring them news from the front lines. At first the Jews hid in the barn, and then they moved to the house and were hidden in an earthen hole under a piece of furniture,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous website. Kellen, his wife and nephew and the others remained with the Urbonas family until they were liberated by the Soviet army on July 31, 1944.

Even though Kellen, Julia and Jerry managed to escape and hide, most were not so fortunate. Kellen’s mother and sister stayed at the camp and were later sent to another camp where they died of typhus and starvation, according to the article by Powers.

Eventually, Kellen returned to Kovno in search of his family, only to find that the camp had been burned down.  Everyone had been killed or sent elsewhere in order to hide evidence. A source indicates that Henry was able to find a letter from his sister that she had left for him at the camp. In the letter, his sister asked Kellen and Julia to watch over her son.

According to The Jewish Voice, newsletter for the Jewish Federation of El Paso, Henry Kellen was among the first Holocaust survivors to arrive in the United States on July 4, 1946, thanks to the work of Eleanor Roosevelt and President Harry Truman, who issued the first affidavits for displaced survivors. “El Paso was our destination because Julia had a sister, Olga Rosenberg, who arrived with her husband, Sam, to this country in 1929,” Kellen told Grace B. Ellowitz. “While being a witness of the most shameful and tragic history of mankind, I never shared with anybody the tragic history of the Holocaust. The Holocaust to me and Julia was a nightmare.”

""Image caption: Julia and Henry Kellen walk on a Berlin street in 1946. (Photo courtesy of the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center)

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Thus began a journey in a new country. Kellen and his small family now had a fresh start, a new life, all in another country. Even though things were tough emotionally, Kellen managed to move on and make his life as a Jewish citizen of El Paso. It was not easy to find a job, as he mentioned in The Jewish Voice. In fact, even his engineering diploma and the five European languages he spoke were of no use here in the Sun City. With the help of Emil Reisel, Kellen was able to establish himself.

Emil Reisel, a man who had foreseen Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1930s, arrived in the United States in 1935 with his wife Regina. By 1945, he was living in El Paso operating a wholesale warehouse, according to the book El Paso—The Wild West Welcomes Holocaust Survivors by Dr. Mimi R. Gladstein and Sylvia D. Cohen. Holocaust survivors that arrived in El Paso were directed to Emil Reisel. “Reisel’s main task was to find employment for the men among the refugees,” stated Gladstein, Reisel’s daughter.

In a personal interview with Isabel Hernandez, Gladstein stated that her father tried to help all Holocaust survivors. Most of the people he helped stayed in El Paso; the few that did not left mainly because they had made contact with family and decided to move with them. Gladstein also mentioned that she met Kellen when she was a young girl. Her father helped Kellen by offering him a job.

According to Gladstein and Cohen’s book, Reisel gave Kellen “two sample cases, a car, and a sales route that sent him out to remote towns such as Lovington, New Mexico, and Safford, Arizona.” Within some years, Kellen began to run his own business called the Hollywood Store for Men, a fashion store in downtown El Paso.

In the interview with Hernandez, Gladstein said that at the age of 14, she had begun to work for Kellen. Even though her father and Kellen had different businesses and had gone different ways, the two families remained good friends.

Gladstein said that she knew Kellen’s nephew, and they both attended El Paso High School, being about the same age. She added that Jerry was a “very sweet guy and smart, too.” He graduated in the top ten of his class, according to Gladstein, and he later attended San Diego University. Tragically, after surviving the Holocaust, he unexpectedly died in his sleep of a brain condition at the age of 27.

Gladstein recounted that her mother Regina was asked to help the women Holocaust survivors who came to El Paso without the slightest idea of how to function in America, such as how to buy groceries. Meanwhile, Gladstein and her sister were often asked to teach survivors how to read and write English. Gladstein said the irony of her life is that from teaching others English at such a young age, she became an English professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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The death of Emil Reisel took a toll on his family and on all of those who had received help from him. He had lived a very prosperous life, always wanting to help others. Gladstein added that upon her father’s death, the Kellen family was always there for Regina by accompanying her in her sorrow as well as attempting to lift up her spirits. The couple often visited Regina and took her out for lunch, always keeping an eye on her. Thus began a close relationship between the three individuals.

As great friends as they were, Gladstein noted that it was difficult for Kellen to talk about his past. El Paso had yet to discover the entire story of Kellen as a survivor of the Holocaust.

“For 33 years no one wanted to know what Henry Kellen had to tell them,” wrote El Paso Times writer Craig Phelon in a 1979 article. Some people began to believe that the Holocaust was all a lie. In fact, such denials in the form of pamphlets and books began occurring in the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, the number of these publications greatly increased. Two such examples were The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry in 1976 by Arthur Butz and David Irving’s Hitler’s War in 1977. These denials broke Kellen’s silence.

He made it his duty to speak up, to let the world know, to educate everyone that this tragic event did happen and he was living proof of it. According to Phelon, Kellen’s story was not told publicly until he was interviewed for an El Paso Times story about the 1978 television series entitled Holocaust.

Holocaust survivors Benjamin Kandel, Z. Anthony Kruszewski and Henry Kellen each had a different story to tell the Times. The survivors had witnessed many atrocities during the Holocaust, even though they lived in different parts of Eastern Europe.

Kellen revealed in this article how he and the rest of the residents of Kaunas, Lithuania, were treated by the German soldiers who had invaded their home. “They told us we had 48 hours to bring everything of value from our houses … They were going to search the houses after 48 hours and if they found anything of value, the whole family would be shot.” One of Kellen’s neighbors was shot for forgetting one silver spoon in his house.

Most of the experiences Kellen described are gruesome and graphic; however, he made it his obligation to inform the younger generations that the Holocaust was an event that happened and must not be repeated.

Kellen and his wife had suffered from the Holocaust but also suffered remembering it. Another tragedy was the passing of their nephew. Even though they did not have any children of their own, they raised Jerry as their son. Gladstein mentioned in her interview that the Kellens had adopted a troubled child named Shaul Yannai from Israel. Kellen raised him and led him to attend the University of Texas at Austin. Shaul later departed back to Israel, where he lives on a kibbutz with his wife

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In 1983, Kellen retired from his business, the same year his wife Julia died. According to Gladstein and Cohen, Kellen asked the El Paso Jewish Federation for space in the Jewish Community Center to display some of the books and personal effects related to the Holocaust that he had collected. Soon his collection spilled over from one wall of the conference room to other areas of the room. Word got out and the numbers of visitors grew as Kellen began inviting schools, churches and the military to learn about the Holocaust. Thus, the first Holocaust museum was born in 1984.

Kellen decided he would search for more evidence of the Holocaust. In 1989, he flew to Poland to find memorabilia from the camps in Europe. Most of the camps were burned down by the Germans in order to erase all evidence, but “the most notorious camps, Auschwitz and Maidanek, survived,” he told Ellowitz. Kellen returned with “important memorabilia.”

""Image Caption: Train car display at the El Paso Holocaust Museum shows the way Holocaust victims were transported from camp to camp. (Photo by Isabel Hernandez)

Little by little, Kellen’s collection grew and the room gained more visitors each time he added something. By coincidence, as Kellen mentioned to Ellowitz, he came upon a Torah that was hidden by a Polish farmer. Apparently, a Jewish family in Warsaw asked the farmer to take care of it while they were in the camps, but they never went back for it. The same Torah is currently at the El Paso Holocaust Museum.

Such were the contributions Kellen was given that helped him in the creation of his first museum, which lasted for about 10 years. In those years, Kellen was surprised to have so many visitors in the limited space. People had to sit on the floor and on the conference table.

Needing clerical help, Kellen called upon Sylvia Deener Cohen, the senior adult director at the Jewish Community Center. Cohen and Kellen had known each other before since both of them had worked at Emil Reisel’s Rio Grande Sales Company, according to the book El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center. “By the time the El Paso Museum and Holocaust Center moved from its single conference room into a freestanding building in 1994, Sylvia Cohen had become its executive director.”

In the spring of 1994, the second museum was opened thanks to the generous donation of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Rosenbaum. Located at 401 Wallenberg Street, next door to the Jewish Community Center, this museum had a variety of daily visitors and grew quickly.

In an El Paso Times article titled “Holocaust Museum Continues to Expand,” Erika Witzke wrote that there was “additional audio expansion to the gassing area and oven-sight displays, replicas of the ‘showers’ and ovens in which millions of ‘undesirables’ were exterminated.” The museum even had a model of a train car used to transport camp prisoners from one place to another. And now it had realistic sound effects. Among the items Kellen had collected in his two trips to Poland were children’s shoes, human hair and shower heads.

The museum also contained many donated items from El Paso Holocaust survivors such as photos, clothing and the Torah that had been preserved by the farmer. Over 4,000 students visited the museum in the first year it opened, according to Witzke. By the end of 2001, more than 25,000 students were visiting the museum annually and there was still a waiting list. The new museum had its share of volunteers, some of whom were Holocaust survivors, and others who were recruited by Cohen to be docents of the museum.

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An interesting feature of the second El Paso Holocaust Museum was that it was designed to resemble a bunker. An image of the museum is shown in the book by Gladstein and Cohen. Another unique characteristic of the original building was that there was a small outdoor garden of cypress trees in honor of the Righteous Among the Nations, referring to a title bestowed by the state of Israel on non-Jews who rescued or helped Jews survive during the Holocaust, despite the danger to their own lives.

""Image caption: The Tree of Life sculpture in the museum asks visitors to “Remember the Children.” (Photo by Isabel Hernandez)

In her interview with Hernandez, Gladstein explained that she had joined the Jewish Community Committee in order to help Kellen, who wanted to place the Urbonas family in the Righteous Among the Nations. Gladstein and her sister put together the extensive documentation necessary to have the family registered in the Righteous Among the Nations.

As Kellen became more involved with the museum, he was asked to make presentations at several schools. According to an article in the March 2008 issue of The Jewish Voice, Kellen made presentations at Cochise College in Douglas, Ariz., New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Western University in Silver City and also at the University of Texas at El Paso. “I was even invited once to be a guest speaker of Remembrance Day to the Jewish Community of Albuquerque,” added Kellen.

Even though he was doing great things with the museum, Kellen still had sleepless nights. “My mind was constantly occupied with the question which has no answer, ‘How [did] the perpetrators murder one and a half million precious Jewish children? Our children who might have been the future of the Jewish people … ’” Kellen said to Ellowitz. A question that indeed did not have an answer and at times caused him to question God in a way resulted in being one of his motivations to educate the public, especially children.

The museum was a remarkable place for local El Pasoans and out-of-towners to visit. But seven years after its opening the second museum burned down. “An electrical fire … wiped out 80 percent of the collection, forcing the collection to go mobile, traveling to area schools and institutions.” wrote Pullen.

It was not the time to give up, though. Kellen and supporters of the museum made it their ultimate goal to raise funds for another museum. Thanks to the efforts put forth by the community of El Paso and Henry Kellen’s determination, a new 5,000-square foot Holocaust Museum was built and opened on Jan. 27, 2008, in downtown El Paso. With its new location at 715 North Oregon Street, the museum was ready to bring in more visitors than ever.

Many of the displays were damaged or destroyed in the aforementioned fire, so a new museum had to be designed. However, there are a few items that survived the fire and can be seen at the present museum. The museum’s purpose is to teach the “Lessons of the Holocaust.” The museum’s tour is “a continuing effort to combat intolerance, hatred, inhumanity and indifference, the malevolent attitudes that made the horrors of the Holocaust possible,” according to Gladstein and Cohen.

With a new building and 4,100-square feet of exhibit space, the museum has a modern twist to its designs. The new galleries, videos and exhibits were developed by Mireles Creative, Inc., directed by Victor Mireles, the lead designer of the museum. Topics of permanent exhibits range from “Life in Europe Before the Nazis” to “Kristallnacht” to “Life in the Ghettos,” to “Transportation by Railcars to Camps” to “Liberation by Allied Forces,” and several others. All materials in the museum’s galleries are in both English and Spanish.

In addition to exhibit space, the building consists of staff offices, a gift shop, a more spacious and welcoming entryway and space for future exhibits. Unfortunately, there is not enough space on the property for the garden the second museum had. However, a mural honors the Righteous Among the Nations. It includes pictures and brief descriptions of experiences from people of many countries against a background of cypress trees.

Kellen said in an article that the main purpose for creating the museum was to commemorate his family and the rest who were not as fortunate as he to have survived the Holocaust. He also wanted to fight the claims that the Holocaust never occurred.

Kellen was indeed a very fortunate man to have survived the Holocaust and to have had the privilege to teach others about his story and the historic catastrophe. Another auspicious event for Kellen was to have found the Urbonas family. He described in an El Paso Times article how he had for years been looking for the Urbonas family to thank them. According to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous website, Andrius Urbonas and his wife died in 1973. Juozas died in 2009. However, Kellen was able to meet with Ona, along with fellow survivor Yerachmiel Siniuk. Later, Kellen also met a granddaughter of the couple who saved him, Virginya, who married El Pasoan Barry Mann.

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Survivors of the Holocaust were liberated by Allied military troops. These “Liberators” were the soldiers who freed those in the concentration camps and they are honored as well with a mural in the El Paso Holocaust Museum. According to Gladstein and Cohen, the Museum’s first president, Albert Schwartz, former mayor Peter de Wetter and local artist Ernesto Martinez were local Liberators and are commemorated on a museum wall.

The final gallery includes a sanctuary and an area for meditation. This includes the Tree of Life sculpture, a photomontage of Anne Frank and memorial plaques. The memorial plaques contain words of wisdom from  Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Elie Wiesel and Nicholas Winton.

The museum that now stands with pride on the corner of Oregon and Yandell Streets has daily visitors, from local students to tourists to soldiers and serious researchers of the Holocaust. As the museum continues to grow, changes and updates are always in progress.

In 2009, Mayor John Cook of El Paso awarded Kellen the Conquistador Award, the city’s highest achievement award, an honor given only to those who have made great contributions and dedications to the city.

Kellen outlived two wives, Julia, who died more than 30 years ago and Regina Reisel Kellen, who died almost six years ago on Sept. 18, 2008. After Julia’s death, Regina Reisel was there for Kellen, just as he was there for her when her husband, Emil Reisel, passed away. They eventually married. Gladstein, his stepdaughter, said in the interview with Hernandez, “Henry Kellen was a wonderful husband. He took great care of her; they had great times together.”

The El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center has made an impact on the El Paso community. It has presented many programs and events that have drawn thousands of visitors to further educate them on the Holocaust. Activities such as “The Memory Project,” a multimedia art installation at the museum, have presented the historic event from many different perspectives. The museum held its sixth annual summer camp for children June 16­20, 2014. “Tales of Courage” was the theme for the educational camp created for children ages 8 to 12. The museum’s Tour de Tolerance, now in its eighth year, offers bicycle races as well as a 5K walk/ run. The museum also sponsors a book club and hosted an educators’ conference on “Teaching the Holocaust” in May. Admission to the museum and parking are free, but donations are encouraged. It is open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Mondays.

As one of only 13 freestanding Holocaust Museums in our country, the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center continues to expand to further educate the public. Said Gladstein: “El Paso is very fortunate that a man of Henry’s vision and commitment has brought into being this historical treasure for our community. The museum’s key mission is to preach against prejudice and discrimination.”

In the final gallery hang tablets with words of wisdom. One of them is inscribed with Elie Wiesel’s teaching: “Not to remember means to side with the executioners against its victims; Not to remember means to kill the victims a second time; Not to remember means to become an accomplice of the enemy. On the other hand, to remember means to feel compassion for the victims of all persecutions.”

Henry Kellen died on July 3, 2014, two days short of his 99th birthday as this article was being written. He had remained active in the museum he founded, participating in making decisions about its activities. He was remembered at a reception at the museum, attended by many who loved and respected this man who was determined that our world know the truth about the Holocaust and set about making it a reality. He is survived by his two stepdaughters, Mimi Gladstein and Holli Berry, his adopted son Shaul Yannai and an immeasurable legacy of compassion, education and activism.

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(EPCC TV) Professor Blevins visits the El Paso Holocaust Museum and talks with Maribel Villalva.

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