Texas Tech University

Remember. Reflect. Respond.

Ashlyn Grotegut

January 27, 2023

As the executive director of the El Paso Holocaust Museum, alumna Jamie Flores shares historic stories to combat social injustice.

Jamie Flores
To see more photos from the El Paso Holocaust Museum, please click here.

Dim lights guide the way into the El Paso Holocaust Museum. 

Spotlighted on the opening exhibit wall are the words: 

“You are my witness.” 

First, an elegantly furnished dining room filled with family portraits depict life in an ordinary European Jewish home. 

But as the hallways wind through chronological exhibits, that quality of life quickly shifts.

A broken store window and “Jude” painted in crude yellow letters onto a door provide evidence of hate crimes against European Jews. Suitcases stacked in a boxcar with barbed wire-lined windows reveal the caged reality of deportation. 

Jamie Flores
Jamie Flores

“People were being rounded up and treated like animals,” said Jamie Flores, executive director of the museum. “They were forced to pack only one suitcase. During tours, we ask students, ‘What would you take if you only had a few minutes to pack one suitcase?'”

Questions like this may be hard to ask. The grim displays are hard to accept, but the museum presents them, nonetheless, as a glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust.  

But past the propaganda and photos of Adolf Hitler leading his army that line the hallways is a brightly lit place of support and strength – a corner – lined with stone monuments etched with names. 

Each stone is a permanent reminder of one of the millions of European Jewish lives destroyed by the Nazi regime's persecution.

To Flores, the white walls of the memorial room and the accompanying exhibits are both somber and hopeful, because they do not only share names – they share stories. 

“The number of 6 million deaths is massive,” Flores said. “No one can wrap their heads around that. But if we can get visitors to connect with somebody who experienced or who was killed in the Holocaust, then that's the first step to building an understanding and crossing the history of the Holocaust over to problems we're seeing today: discrimination, prejudice, racism and antisemitism.”

That is why, above the white-washed stones, a quote reads: 

“To remember a name is to rescue a lost life from oblivion.”

Henry Kellen
Henry Kellen is a Holocaust survivor and founder of the El Paso Holocaust Museum.

It was, fittingly, under this quote that Holocaust survivor and museum founder Henry Kellen made a passionate plea to Flores and the museum's executive director at the time in 2014. 

“He was so worried that people would forget his family after he was gone,” Flores said. “He was worried no one would carry this on for him.”

Flores knew Kellen's story well. He would visit the museum toward the end of the workday and make his way to her desk to chat. 

Flores graduated from Texas Tech University in 2007 with a dual degree in journalism and history with special focus on European history, so she knew a lot about the Holocaust. Her interest in this time period drew her to apply for a job at the museum in 2008, and her academic knowledge secured her the role of education director.

But no amount of lectures or research could prepare her for a first-person account of the horrors that took place. 

“Kellen taught me so much,” Flores said. “He would walk me through the museum and show me artifacts that he personally owned. His family pictures were all over the museum.”

Kellen told her how he was affected when the Germans invaded Lithuania in 1941. His family, along with 30,000 other Jews, were forced into the Kovno Ghetto.

Henry Kellen with Jamie Flores
Henry and Jamie in 2009

“I would just sit and cry, listening to him talk about the atrocities he witnessed,” Flores said.

As Nazi and Ukrainian soldiers separated Jewish children from their families, Kellen and his wife took their 8-year-old nephew and escaped. Thanks to a Lithuanian farmer, they were successfully hidden in an earthen hole under a barn floor for the remainder of the war. 

While the three of them survived the Holocaust, Kellen's parents, brother and sister did not. 

“He would leave, and I wouldn't even be able to leave my desk,” Flores said. “It was just devastating to hear those particular stories of loss and cruelty.”

Kellen had not always been open with his personal account until the 1980s, when he became aware of Holocaust deniers. 

Furious that anyone would doubt the historical event that impacted him so deeply, Kellen set out to collect as much Holocaust memorabilia, artifacts and educational materials as he could. His collection began to draw crowds in 1984, which led to the formation of the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center. 

“He was fixated on telling these stories so people would understand,” Flores said. 

Henry Kellen with Jamie Flores
Jamie and Henry

Through their one-on-one meetings at her desk, Kellen liked to lightheartedly tease Flores that he taught her “all she knows.” 

Flores did not mind this joke, because she considered Kellen an incredible mentor who shared more than an understanding of the Holocaust. He helped ignite a passion within Flores that helped promote her to programming director, and then to executive director in 2018.

Sadly, Kellen was not there to applaud her achievement.

He died shortly after he made his memorial room request to carry on his legacy, which left her with a promise to keep. 

“We can't let this happen again,” Flores said. “We can't let their experiences and legacy be for nothing. That's the driving force behind what I do.”

Flores has achieved many accomplishments during her time at the museum. She created an annual children's summer program that teaches kindness, empathy and acceptance; formed a biannual teacher's conference that connects educators with experts on the Holocaust; and created a film of local survivors' testimonies that plays at the museum.

That film is special to her, because when she first started at the museum in 2008 there were 12 Holocaust survivors in El Paso. Now, only one remains.

“We're a very tight-knit community, and so losing someone like one of our survivors is devastating,” Flores said. “It's a personal loss of losing a dear friend, and on another level, there is the loss in the community and the world, of an eyewitness to what happened.”

Tibor Schaechner
Tibor Schaechner

That is why Flores relishes her time with Tibor Schaechner, the museum's last local survivor. He is 95 years old, but still active.

“He comes to the museum for events and openings,” Flores said. “I still get to talk to him on a regular basis. He is really amazing.”

Schaechner and Flores have developed a friendship during their time together. He lovingly talks about his family, and Flores has been introduced to several of his children, stepchildren and even grandchildren, who stay involved with the museum. 

Little did she know, she would practically become a part of Schaechner's family. 

“I took him to lunch one day, and we were just talking about the museum and life when he told me I was like an adopted granddaughter to him,” Flores said. “That meant the world to me and was one of the best moments of my life.”

Another highlight was when Schaechner attended Flores' wedding in 2015. 

“Getting to know Schaechner has formed a very special relationship in my life,” Flores said. “We have great conversations.”

While most of their talks are lighthearted, much like Kellen, Schaechner has given Flores the gift of perspective by sharing his Holocaust experiences. It broke her heart to learn how Schaechner was treated when he, his mother and sister were forced out of their neighborhood into the Budapest Ghetto. 

“The same kids he grew up with were standing outside clapping,” Flores said. “I can't imagine being a teenager, seeing the kids you've played with applauding you being kicked out of your home.”

Tibor with Jamie
Tibor and Jamie in 2018

These memories are hard for Schaechner to relive, which is why he rarely gives speeches anymore. 

But as Flores promised Kellen, she will make sure Schaechner's stories are heard by generations to come so their “humiliation and dehumanization” is not repeated. In fact, she decided to create a personal mission for the museum: to become a go-to place for not only Holocaust education, but social justice and current events. 

“Right after the Holocaust, people said, ‘Never again, will we let this happen,' but we continue to let inhumanity and injustice occur over and over again,” Flores said. “The world hasn't learned the history of the Holocaust, because we too often let fear, ignorance and hate snowball. 

“If we would actually learn and reflect on history and its relevance today, on the lives that are affected when we let hatred go unchecked, then we could see change happen.”

Past the museum's monument-filled corner, Kellen's and Schaechner's portraits are posted in a survivors gallery alongside their stories. Beyond that is the last exhibit in the memorial room, which is Flores' favorite part of the museum. 

Illuminated by candlelight is a wall of inspirational words, the largest of them: 

“Remember. Reflect. Respond.”

That is the message Flores hopes visitors take from the museum into the world.

“We want them to feel empowered, that they can make a difference when they see injustice,” she said. “I think that's how we learn from history and feel empowered to stand up and speak out for somebody else, even if we're not directly affected. That's how we truly honor survivors and victims of the past.”

To see more photos from the El Paso Holocaust Museum, please click here.