NORTH ADAMS, Massachusetts — Half a century ago, as a schoolboy in Massachusetts’ remote North Adams, Darrell English began collecting artifacts for his future Holocaust museum.
With a father and five uncles who served in World War II, young English amassed his first objects because “everyone brought lots of stuff home from the war,” he said. Come family reunions, the budding collector would be the recipient of “pins, patches and medals” from all over Europe, he said.
Today the 57-year-old history buff owns at least 10,000 artifacts from the war, in addition to 3,000 items related to the Holocaust specifically. From original Nazi propaganda filmstrips and posters, to parts of uniforms worn by concentration camp inmates and SS officers, his objects chronicle the transition from the Nazis’ early racial laws through the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
In March 2013, English displayed 250 of his Shoah artifacts in what he called the New England Holocaust Institute & Museum — a 750-square foot store front in the heart of North Adams, a sleepy manufacturing town where English lives on a fifth generation farm with his wife, Mary, a retired postal worker.
With no capital funding or sustainable support, the former auctioneer kept his mini-museum open on a month-to-month basis. In May, however, after just two years of operation, the institute closed to make way for an extension of the adjacent food pantry. English and his tiny group of donors were no longer able to keep the lights on.
‘I was never really accepted for doing this’
Though it was seldom visited by the locals, English’s collection of both obscure and recognizable Holocaust-era paraphernalia drew the attention of history buffs and local media outlets, he said.
“I was never really accepted for doing this by the people around me,” said English of the museum’s reception in his hometown. “The community never really embraced me, but it looks like the exposure we received is about to pay off,” he said.
In neighboring Adams, the upstart Holocaust museum caught the attention of town officials tasked with expanding tourism, English told The Times of Israel. With developed tourist infrastructure and a large community of Polish-Americans, scenic Adams might be the answer to English’s quest for a permanent space, he said.
Until a new space is identified, the Nazi-era artifacts once displayed in English’s shuttered gallery are back in attic storage, he said, along with thousands of other WWII-related items “that have never even seen the light of day,” he said.
Conversations to locate the collection in a former bank building are advanced, according to English. If secured, the space would allow him to design a permanent exhibition featuring three parallel but connected histories, he said: that of the Nazi party, the development of WWII, and the Holocaust itself.
‘Several Jews in the area felt terribly uncomfortable coming in here because they saw it more as Nazi-oriented than Holocaust-oriented’
From an SS death camp commander’s uniform, to an empty container of Zyklon B, some of English’s artifacts are easy to place within the genocide. Others, like a Nazi storm trooper chocolate mold, or the German cookbook with a Nuremberg racial law supplement tucked in the middle, stretch back to the mid-30s and growth of anti-Jewish propaganda.
According to one local museum observer, the gallery’s emphasis on Nazi paraphernalia might have been off-putting to potential supporters.
“Several Jews in the area felt terribly uncomfortable coming in here because they saw it more as Nazi-oriented than Holocaust-oriented,” said Ralph Brill, a Jewish resident of North Adams whose father survived the Dachau forced labor camp in Germany.
Several decades ago, North Adams was home to a large Jewish community with 12 synagogues, according to the 70-year-old Brill. Founded by descendants of European Jews who came to the area for textile work, just one of those congregations remains today, said Brill.
As for allegations that English’s collection can be mistaken for “a Nazi shrine,” Brill — a gallery owner and creator of Holocaust memorials himself — begs to differ.
‘This is an integrated collection to reach a new generation of students who can be bored with traditional museums’
“You need Darrell [English] to walk you through the collection,” Brill told The Times of Israel in an onsite interview. “This is an integrated collection to reach a new generation of students who can be bored with traditional museums,” said Brill.
Last year, representatives of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum met with Brill while researching the area’s connections to the WWII-era “monuments men” — soldiers who were trained in adjacent Williamstown to recover Europe’s top artwork as the Nazis fled. The researchers were “quite impressed” with English’s collection, noting that some objects were one-of-a-kind, recalled Brill.
According to at least one Holocaust historian, English’s inclusion of anti-Jewish propaganda and relics from the genocide should not be seen as glorifying Nazism, but as a means to shake people from complacency about the past.
“The part of Darrell’s collection that has attracted my interest is not the uniforms or the truncheons, but the popular cultural propaganda art that presented in a simple, five-second reinforcement of purpose, the hatred of Jews,” said Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, based in Rockville, Maryland.
Like Brill, Klinger has known English for many years, and is committed to helping the mothballed collection attract a wider audience.
‘Jews are frightened by the reality of hate when it is in their face, and maybe that is why many would prefer if the Holocaust and its memory would simply go away’
“Original propaganda posters are never seen and marginally understood. Even today, they make many people uncomfortable because of the personal nature of the directed hate,” Klinger told The Times. “Jews are frightened by the reality of hate when it is in their face, and maybe that is why many would prefer if the Holocaust and its memory would simply go away,” he said.
Long fascinated by the Holocaust, English is not Jewish and has yet to visit Europe. Years before opening the North Adams gallery, the collector started taking his favorite artifacts to local schools. During these visits, English realized the ability of his objects to bring students closer to the Holocaust.
“The artifacts are silent voices to whatever we are studying,” said Michael Little, a history teacher at Clarksburg Elementary School, outside North Adams.
To teach eighth graders about the Holocaust, Little makes use of well-known books and local survivor testimony, with a visit from English serving as “the link” between curricular elements, he said. The encounters with English and his artifacts have been a seminal experience for hundreds of students, according to Little.
“When my students look at a camp uniform and clogs, they know that an actual person once wore them,” Little told The Times. “It helps them expand their empathy,” he said.
‘When my students look at a camp uniform and clogs, they know that an actual person once wore them’
During encounters with students, English asks each one to choose an artifact that speaks to them personally, and share their impressions with the group.
“The students look at the canister of Zyklon B and understand that hundreds of people were murdered when that canister was opened,” said Little.
“The artifacts help students understand we are dealing with real people, and this provides a whole new depth to their Holocaust study,” he said.
After 40 years of buying, trading and selling artifacts, English sees his Holocaust collection as “the legacy I want to leave, not having had any children myself,” he said.
‘If most of these things had not wound up in my hands, they would be destined for a burn-pile’
“You need places like me around, you need satellites like mine to have more education,” said English. “If most of these things had not wound up in my hands, they would be destined for a burn-pile,” he said.
Calling himself a modern-day Herodotus, English said he won’t let up on “bugging everyone about what happened during the war. I want to be remembered as that fine kook who did something,” he said.
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