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Op-Ed: International Holocaust Remembrance Day-What relevance does it have for me?

Sixteen months ago I had the opportunity to walk through a beautiful forest on the outskirts of Riga, Latvia’s capital city. A path had been built through part of the forest, and on this autumn afternoon it was being used by joggers and cyclists.

It should have been a perfect place to relax. It wasn’t.

I had spent my day in and around Riga visiting the sites of two concentration camps and other forests where mass killings had taken place. This last forest, this beautiful, beautiful forest where people were jogging and cycling, was Bikernieki.

Here, from 1941 to 1944, 35,000 people were brought, lined up next to graves dug by Soviet POWs, and then shot from two different angles.

About 20,000 of them were Jewish. Age did not matter. Money did not matter. Education or profession did not matter. If you were Jewish, you were to be killed. If you were female, young and pretty, you got to be gang-raped during the 10 kilometer truck journey to the forest, and then killed.

In the past 8 years I have visited close to 70 Holocaust-related sites in 12 different European countries. I thought nothing could surprise me any more, but for some reason, as I walked deeper and deeper into the Bikernieki forest past more and more and more of the 55 identified mass graves, something inside of me broke. In a video clip I filmed, I could hear it in my voice as I counted the graves within eyesight and whispered, “There is no end. It just doesn’t end.”

I am not Jewish. For personal reasons I have been studying the Holocaust since I was 8 years old in an effort to understand not just how it was allowed to happen, but what the motivation and self-justification was of those who both perpetrated and enabled it. Decades later my childhood assumptions have not changed: a portion of mankind is cruel. I am still stunned by the depth and creativity of that cruelty.

Genocide, torture, slavery, conquest, and massacres have been happening worldwide for thousands of years. They still happen. In the years since the end of World War II we have witnessed additional genocides on more than one continent. As I whispered in Bikernieki, it just doesn’t end.

I do not believe that studying the Holocaust will help us know how to prevent something like it happening again because I believe that to be an impossible hope. Evil will exist as long as mankind does. And even though the term “Holocaust” refers only to Jewish victims of the Third Reich, there were other victims.

Why, then, should the world – and you personally – commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day?

We should take the time to commemorate because of important lessons we can learn from the Holocaust, lessons which may confront our own assumptions about what can and can’t happen in our own lives and to the lives of others, lessons which hopefully will push us to be better human beings. What are these lessons?

First, evil can happen anywhere and to anyone. The Holocaust was truly international. Even though the Nazi regime had several groups targeted for extermination including Slavs, Roma, mentally and physically handicapped people and homosexuals, Jews were number one on the list in terms of both priority and actual numbers.

The protocol of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, drafted January 20, 1942 at the Wannsee Conference, states several times that the objective was the removal of every last Jew from Europe. The Final Solution mentions and even lists several different countries by name.

In the English translation used at the postwar Nuremberg Trials, it states “Europe will be combed through from west to east.” (Those who have had to delouse someone will understand the reference.) I remember seeing a map in Romania which showed where Jews lived. One of the locations was a tiny farm village high in the mountains, completely inaccessible by motor vehicles.

One Jewish farmer in his 80s lived there. He was on the list to be killed. Among those murdered in northern Poland at Sobibor were several athletes and coaching staff from a former Dutch Olympic gymnastics team. Plans were also made for concentration camps to be built in north Africa and the Middle East.

If Hitler had succeeded in conquering the rest of the world, the rest of the world’s Jews would also have been targets. The Jewish victims from Europe lived in numerous countries; those who survived found refuge in even more. In the words of a former director of the Sobibor memorial site: “Poland is Europe’s graveyard.”

Second, murder and theft on such a large scale can only happen if the local and federal governments are complicit. The highly educated and powerful men who participated in the conference at the Wannsee villa not only put into writing what the government policy towards Jews was to be (“kill them all”), they also specified which government bodies were to perform the bureaucratic implementation of the process. In other words, the government decided who was to be killed and how.

This particular government came into power because enough of the population supported their policies. But the policies couldn’t become reality without the various branches of government planning each step and contingency, including legal issues.

In contrast, even though the Jews of Denmark eventually had to flee the country, nearly the entire Jewish population survived the war partly because of the actions of government workers at all levels, from government ministers to local civil servants.

Third, remembering the Holocaust reminds us that individuals can make a difference. In countless incidents, local populations actively and happily participated in the hunt for and the murder of local Jews.

They turned in their Jewish colleagues and neighbors, participated in mob violence, became camp guards, participated in mass killings, appropriated the property of Jews (including clothing stripped from the Jewish victims at mass killing sites), or even just remained silent. On the other hand, there were thousands of others who endangered themselves, their families and their neighbors to either hide Jews or help them escape.

These “Righteous Among the Nations”, who came from many nations and all ranks of society, held a variety of religious beliefs. The Wannsee protocol recognized the potential impact of the actions of individuals.

In discussing which countries to deport Jews from first, it states “in some countries, such as the Scandinavian states, difficulties will arise if this problem [mass killing of the Jews] is dealt with thoroughly and that it will therefore be advisable to defer actions in these countries.”

In the case of Denmark, the Danes themselves helped 7000 Jews (out of an estimated 7800) escape from Denmark in 1943. Denmark is the only European country conquered by Germany where most of its Jewish citizens survived. And part of that survival was because individuals convinced the Swedish government to change its policy and accept the Danish refugees.

Fourth, the human spirit has amazing strength and resilience. When our own focus changes from regarding the Holocaust as an anonymous long ago event to focusing on the lives of individuals whom it affected, I believe that the way we regard ourselves and others will also change.

The actions of the perpetrators, bystanders, and especially the victims reflect the most horrific cruelty mankind is capable of, while at the same time showing us some of the greatest, most noble actions a human being is capable of. Where would each of us have fit in this scale? Where would we fit today if we saw someone being bullied, or an injustice being done at work?

Testimonies, written accounts, photographs and the very real scratchings made by dying human beings that can be seen even today in existing gas chambers show us that the adults, who were dying themselves, tried to push the children and babies to the top of the space in the hopes that there might be enough oxygen higher up to save them.

The father (who was 5 at the time) of a Polish diplomat I met said that he and his friends used to try to hand water to the poor wretches in the cattle cars as they were being shipped to the Belzec death camp.

When two young cousins in Terezin learned that their older brothers were to be transferred to Auschwitz, these two girls saved their own meager rations of food so that their brothers would have something to eat on the train. (Neither of the brothers survived.)

A teacher I once worked with was a baby in one of the camps. She survived because the other women in her mother’s barracks hid her and donated their own food to keep her alive.

Many, many non-Jewish couples adopted Jewish children early in the war, knowing there was a very real possibility that they could be discovered and killed for so doing, and that if the biological parents survived, the adoptive parents would have to give back the child they had raised as their own for years. A friend and colleague was 6 years old when the war ended and his biological father found him.

All my friend had ever known was the loving Belgian family who had raised him, and with whom he is still in contact. Other non-Jews risked their lives hiding Jews, some for money and some because of their moral beliefs. Some of those rescued later returned to thank their rescuers; others did not.

I know of several people who were later able to send food and clothing to their rescuers who were living in harsh conditions behind the Iron Curtain.

What continues to astound me is that people who have been through literal hell still have the emotional strength and desire to forge new lives and relationships for themselves. Of course there is damage, whether it be physical, emotional or mental, or all three.

But despite this, hundreds of thousands of survivors moved to new countries, learned new languages and new skills, often began new families, and became a part of the society they now lived in. The pain is always there. The memories are always there. But the ability to smile and even laugh sometimes is also there for many. It humbles me.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day was created partly so that all of us can take a moment to reflect upon our own lives.

Are we apathetic to the suffering of others?

Are we too complacent in the belief that bad things only happen to others?

Do we give up and settle for less when something becomes difficult?

Are we aware of what local and federal governments are doing, or intend to do?

Do we research those who are candidates for political office?

Do we have a clue about what is happening in the rest of the country or the rest of the world? Everything will affect you at some point.

Most importantly, do we value who and what we have in our own lives, especially the people we care about?

Cruelty and hatred will always exist. Remembering the Holocaust and the destruction it caused shows us what the devastating results of hatred and cruelty can be.

Remembering the Holocaust shows us that even the actions of one individual can make a difference, for the good or for the bad.

At some point each of us will reach a point in our lives when we will also have to decide which side we will stand with. Holocaust Remembrance Day asks us to take stock of ourselves, our behavior, our attitudes. Where is each one of us on the scale of right and wrong? What is each of us doing to go further in the direction we have chosen?

IN 2011 Jakub Novakowski, the 28-year-old non-Jewish director of the Salicia Museum of Jewish Life in Krakow, Poland, said:

I can’t imagine 6 million. I can imagine one man – his hopes, his dreams, his story. Don’t commemorate numbers; commemorate real people.


Author – Ann Hansen 

Famed Historian to Give Presentation at UTEP on Holocaust Denial

The University of Texas at El Paso’s Inter-American Jewish Studies Program and the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center present “Confronting Holocaust Denial.”

The presentation starts at 5 p.m. Thursday, February 15, 2018, in UTEP’s Undergraduate Learning Center, Room 106. These free events are open to the public. Free parking will be available in the Sun Bowl Parking Garage (SBG) beginning at 4 p.m.

The main event is a one-hour presentation at 7 p.m. by internationally known author and historian Deborah Lipstadt, Ph.D., Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She waged a successful legal battle against a Holocaust denier in 2010.

That story is the basis of the 2016 film “Denial,” which stars Rachel Weisz. That movie will be screened at 5 p.m. in the same auditorium.

Lipstadt’s talk will focus on the dangers of denying the murders of millions of Jews in the Holocaust and the need to continue to battle the denier movement around the world. She has authored two books about the subject, “Denying the Holocaust” and “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.”

This presentation’s other sponsors are the Jewish Community Foundation of El Paso, the Jewish Federation of Greater El Paso, the Aaron Wechter Memorial Scholarship, the Shiloff Family Foundation, Felicia Rubin, and Gerald and Stanlee Rubin.


Audio+Gallery+Story: Education and Empathy – El Paso’s Holocaust Museum Continues Mission

There are people who say the Holocaust never happened. It’s shocking to other that such an attitude is even prevalent in today’s world. How can anyone deny the death of over six million people based on religion?

There is even a study, released in 2013 that says upwards of twenty million people died at the hands of the Nazi regime in death camps. TWENTY MILLION is a number I cannot even begin to imagine.

Holocaust deniers are a sad fact of life. They are simply individuals who want to negate the whole event and say it is a continued conspiracy put forth by Zionists. There is even a Rabbi, Rabbi Dovid Weiss who denies the Holocaust.

Another Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi says that not even one million Jews died in the Holocaust. It’s sad, but he does believe this. And there are others.

What does someone have to gain by saying that something as well documented never occurred? What do they get out of it?

I can answer that question. What they get out of it is a distorted sense of power they could not have any other way.

I know this for a fact as I used to be one who denied the Holocaust- not so much the Holocaust as the number of deaths that occurred.

I could not believe that that many people would have lost their lives without someonefeeling compelled to do something. That was before research on various parts of my family.

Like other members of my family, and there are many – my Uncle Robert Zimmerman, Janet Webb, and others – I have an interest in where my family has been, where we’ve come from, and just where we might be going.

It was when I was doing a bit of research on my father’s side, considering his real father, that I began to make some shocking discoveries.

There was a branch of the family that found themselves in different camps during World War II. Some were there because some were classified as “anti-social,” and that is such a broad term.

One was there because they were suspected of being gay. And one person who ended up in a camp, and was liberated. He was in the camp for helping to hide Jewish families and get them out of Germany.

This opened my mind to the reality of World War II.

Another reason people begin to deny the existence of concentration camps and death camps isthe fact it was all a state secret in Germany. They regime wrote down as little as possible. Whatthey did document, they then later attempted to destroy near the end of World War II.

It is felt that the lack of “official” documentation from the German government argues against the existence of the Holocaust. This still does not explain the existence of the camps that remain today and serve as a stark reminder of the brutality man can sink to.

Seven camps are preserved as a somber reminder of a dark time in our collective history. Each of these sites argues against those who deny the Holocaust.

Others have tried to say they conducted extensive tests of the camps and their tests show that no one was killed, or any poisons were used.

Markus Tiedmann has written a book entitled “In Auschwitz wurde niemand vergast.” (“Nobody was gassed at Auschwitz.”: 60 Rightist Lies and How to Counter Them”), and has documented sixty of the largest arguments used by those who deny the Holocaust, and countered them with the truth.

One of these so called “truths” put forth by those who would deny the Holocaust is that the construction of the death chambers in Auschwitz was not on par with then current technology.  This was the claim of Fred Leuchter.

From “In Auschwitz wurde niemand vergast:”

George Wellers, a French Auschwitz survivor, had the following to say about Leuchter’s “expert” testimony:

“The worthy Mr. Leuchter finds it strange that Höß didn’t cross the Atlantic in 1941-42 during the height of the war to get tips from the Americans on how to kill hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children more efficiently…His conclusions contain many astonishing clues that this executioner de luxe has confused his Hilton gas chambers with the miserable sheds that served
the purpose in Auschwitz.”

At first, even the Nazis had no experience with mass murder on this scale. They improved their technology slowly as they gained that experience.

There were different types of gas chambers. The first stationary one was put into use in Belzec in February 1942; mobile gas chambers in trucks were also used. In addition, different types of gas were tried, primarily carbon monoxide (from canisters or diesel exhaust) and prussic acid (Zyklon B).

Development was very uneven; whereas Belzec still used wooden barracks with three gas chambers, there was a brick building with a concrete floor at Sobibor. The first gas chambers that could be hermetically sealed were at Treblinka. Further efficiencies were brought about to Auschwitz in early 1943 with the introduction of Zyklon B and by building the gas chambers with adjacent crematoria.

The Nazis were certainly not concerned with the humaneness of their technology; efficiency was their only goal. If the necessary technology was unavailable or overloaded, they shot or hanged their victims.

It’s sad, but there are still those who deny the atrocities of the Holocaust.

I decided that I would visit the El Paso Holocaust Museum and talk with them about their history, as well as modern day hate.

I met with Lori Shepherd, the executive director of the Holocaust Museum, as well as Jamie Flores, the programming, and education director (the latter interview is contained in the posted audio version).

“You cannot end hate,” Lori Shepherd said, “until you teach empathy.”

“What we fear is what we don’t understand,” is what Lori said. It’s true, all too often, if we don’t understand a situation, people, religion, we begin to fear it, and others will feed off of our fear.

“The idea for the museum came from our founder, Henry Kellem,” says Lori. It started around 1984 when Henry learned that there were Holocaust deniers. Henry, his wife Julia, and their nephew were the only ones from their family to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust and the camps.

When they came to El Paso, they vowed to never talk about the Holocaust. Yet, when his wife passed away, and with the knowledge of individuals who denied the events of the Holocaust, he began to go out and speak at local schools.

“He collected his own memorabilia,” said Lori. “He borrowed space at the Jewish Community Center, in their conference room.”

Henry had owned Hollywood Store for Men, and brought a display case from the store and began to fill it with what they had.

“The star that Jerry had worn, a comb that had been his [Henry’s] mothers, things like that,” recounts Lori as we talked about the founding of the museum.

As often happens others began to come and give items to Henry. There were also soldiers from Ft. Bliss who began to give what they had once they heard of the small “museum.”

“Henry started to take over the entire conference room,” says Lori. “So, one day the board came to him and said you couldn’t, you’ve to take over the whole conference room. It’s always booked with students.”

They told him he had to build his own museum. He did.

A capital campaign was started, the funds raised, and next to the Jewish Community Center, on Wallenberg, the museum began to be built.

The old museum looked, from the outside, as if it were part of one of the camps. It was designed this way on purpose. It was a stark reminder of what man is capable of, the depths we can sink to.

The museum remained there, on Wallenberg, until an electrical fire. Afterwards, Henry Kellem, as he was picking through the remains of the museum, and thought that was the end of his vision, the end of the El Paso Holocaust Museum.

Yet, the board of directors for the museum said that they would rebuild, and they did.

“We are one of thirteen free standing Holocaust Museums in the United States,” said Lori. “And we are particularly proud that we are the only bilingual Holocaust Museum in the United States.”

“The only way we can stop history from repeating itself,” says Lori, “is to learn from it. And, we haven’t learned from it yet.”

Lori shared a Jewish saying with me, “When you remember a name, you rescue a life lost from oblivion.”

There were six million Jews who were murdered during the holocaust. As I said at the beginning of this article, six million is like twenty million, a number I cannot even begin to comprehend.

“When we tell just one of those stories,” said Lori, “of a survivor who lost someone, or of the survivor. When we recapture, and we tell it, we make sure that their life wasn’t lost to hate. That it meant something, that it wasn’t for nothing.”

Now we circle around to those individuals who deny the Holocaust or want to create a revisionist history of events surrounding Germany’s actions during World War II.

There are far too many individuals who continue to deny the events of World War II. What do they get from this? Let’s first look at a quote from a book written by a sitting professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University.

Dr. Arthur R. Butz, in his book “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century,” has this to say about the Holocaust:

“I see three principal reasons for the widespread but erroneous belief in the legend of millions of Jews killed by the Germans during World War II: U.S. and British troops found piles of corpses in the West German camps they captured in 1945 (e.g., Dachau and Belsen); there are no longer large communities of Jews in Poland; and historians generally support the legend.”

When speaking to Lori Shepherd about individuals, such as Dr. Butz, who continue to deny the Holocaust, she had this to say, “It’s about maintaining control, maintaining power, and using hate to do that.”

This, she says, is not different that want the Nazi’s did as far back as 1933, using hate to divide a society in order to gain power. “If you can separate groups of people, make them fearful of one another, and make them hate each other you can control them.”

She went on to say that you can’t have that same level of control when people know each other. How can you hate someone you know? How can you hate someone you are friends with or united with? You simply can’t. Thus, the mindset at work is to divide and conquer.

Look at the world around us, and you will see many examples of this “us” verses “them” mentality. Just scanning the headlines is enough to give you dozens of example of this. Or our own inaction when faced with social, religious, or socio-economic injustices.

“Here at the museum we talk a lot about bystanders, we talk a lot at the museum here about collaborators, and then we talk about perpetrators,” says Lori.

When most people think of the Holocaust, they think of the perpetrators, the Nazis. They are the one’s who stormed into neighborhoods causing division and hate. The Nazis are the ones who sent others off to die because they were different.

“But,” Lori said, “they couldn’t have done it without the collusion of colabaratiors and without the apathy of bystanders. If good people hadn’t turned aside, hadn’t ignored what was happening to their Jewish neighbors, their Gypsy neighbors, the Holocaust could never have happened.”

Today, as then, what the Holocaust deniers and hate mongers believe is that if we can divide the people, if we can separate them based on imagined fears or differences, then they can, and will conquer.

The El Paso Holocaust Museum stands a reminder to man’s inhumanity to man. It also stands, as a monument, to what can be achieved, and how we can move towards peace and unity.

How can we move towards understanding and empathy?

“When we have those first middle school classes that come through here,” said Lori, “when our docents start talking, it’s about connecting each one of those kids, and each and everyone of our visitors… we want to connect each and everyone of them with a story, with a narrative.”

When you hear a story and can make that connection to a person or one of the survivors, you gain that empathy that will ultimately end that hate, will open you to others. I recall that old saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Hearing these stories, learning of their trials, the suffering they have had to endure – and I am not only talking about those who survived the Holocaust, but I am also talking about the neighbors just down the block who you may not yet know – you are connected to them.

“If you can learn about them,” Lori said, “you can support them, and you can learn to love them instead of hating them. We only hate what we don’t understand. We only hate what we fear, and what we fear is what we don’t understand.”

There was a time that I didn’t understand Islam, or the Muslim mindset until I began to meet them, join with them, and learn about them.

There was a time I didn’t understand Jewish beliefs, history, or how the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox would spend so much time in study until I began to meet with an older man named Moshe up in New York City.

The country at large does not understand what most immigrants to this country go through just getting here, or the fear Dreamers have about deportation simply because they do not take the time to get to know them, their dreams, or their histories.

I’ve seen so many people become verbally violent when discussing immigration to this country, or the idea of sanctuary cities. In these discusions, it’s almost as if they are a hair away from becoming physically violent, and that saddens me.

I live in the Lower Valley; I travel to Mexico quite often. I see the fear in the eyes of children who are worried they will be sent back to a country they have never really been to, a country they left when they were just children.

I also see the fear they have because others do not like them, or want them here simply because of who they are and where they have come from.

It’s not right; it’s not.

Last Thursday (September 14) immigration was the topic of the Speak Out Event Series. “Rebirth: A Discussion on Immigration.”

This was a panel discussion about immigration in El Paso. There were experiences of Holocaust survivors, a talk about how people feel about immigration, and more.

“When we look at what we are going to do for our programing, here at the museum,” says Lori, “we want to be sure that we are not just looking at history as it happened, but history as it relates to today.”

“Speak Out” is a new program at the museum where people can come together to share, listen, and grow. “We recognize that people weren’t feeling heard,” said Lori.

“People on both sides of the aisle, people on every side of every issue, they really just want a moment to share what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling.”

“Rebirth After the Holocaust: the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp 1945-1950,” which runs until November 1 is connected to the Speak Out series.

As Lori pointed out, when World War II ended, the struggle didn’t end for the survivors. They had to rebuild their lives and search out remaining family members.

Many of them came to American- directly, or indirectly – through South America. When these individuals and families arrived in new countries, they faced many of the same issues facing immigrants today.

Where will they live, and work? How will they be perceived by the communities they are entering; will they ever be able to rebuild their lives?

The panel discussion brought together those who survived the Holocaust and immigrated here and those who are working with immigration today. They looked at what did, and didn’t work for those immigrating back then, and how they could make changes in today’s system of immigration.

This discussion used the past to inform and shape the present.

That is what the El Paso Holocaust Museum is doing. They remember the past, calling us to witness and learn from it. They are calling us to take those lessons and allow them to grow within us in such a way that they will branch out to others in the hope that peace and love will one day be our reality, and hate only a distant memory.

Before the electrical fire of 2001 there was a small, yet powerful display. You would walk around a corner, and through a passage way, and you were faced with a pile of children’s shoes. Children’s shoes.

Just seeing those shoes, just knowing that there were children who had these shoes removed, possibly removed by force, children who may not have lived to see their next birthday or the liberation of the camps.

I could never walk past those shoes. I had never seen the rest of the older museum. For me, it ended there simply because I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could do this to a child, much fewer adults, simply because they prayed differently than you, worshiped God differently than you, loved differently than you.

Memory, remembering, memorializing – there is no definitive list of those who perished. There is no way we will ever know who has died, who has been brutally murdered in the name of hate. What we can do is honor the memory of all. We can work for peace and unity.

We can learn from our collective history and start recognizing those instances of hate in today’s world, and stop them, use them as a teaching moment.

We can remember, and in that rememberance, we can grow.


Visit the El Paso Holocaust Museum, on line and learn about their programs as well as upcoming events like Vodka and Vino.

There is so much more with both Lori and Jamie that did not make it into the article. To listen to it all, click the link embedded at the top of the story to hear it.

See a picture that you would like to have a copy of, or if you would like him to come out and share your story.  Contact Steven Cottingham at 915-201- 0918 or e-mail him at

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