NORTH ADAMS -- While strolling through the streets of North Adams or New England for that matter, one doesn't expect to come across a Holocaust museum, but thanks to the dedication of one man, Darrell English, a Holocaust museum fits right in.
"It seems out of place, a Holocaust museum in North Adams?" English said. "I have a highly unusual thing going on here. I feel I elevated this town to another level, and people love it. I've had visitors from Florida, I had a Holocaust survivor in here and he was marveling at what was here. People from all over the world are finding it, walking around and commenting."
The New England Holocaust Institute, located at 45 Eagle St.
"My drive is to tell the whole story," English said, "not just the Holocaust alone, but the driving force of World War II. The Washington Holocaust museum might touch on World War II, and the New Orleans World War II museum might touch on the Holocaust, and that's where I want to fill in the blanks."
Strolling around the institute, visitors can view uniforms, propaganda and other tidbits that won't be found anywhere else, and if you ask nicely, visitors can view a seemingly ordinary datebook from the Nazi era.
"Here, just a simple date book from 1941, from Deutsche Emaillewaren-fabrik," English said, "whose owner was Oskar Schindler.
"If you went to his plant in Krakow, and bought his enamelware, as the consummate businessman, he would present this to you. It doesn't exist anywhere else, but here in North Adams. I called my friends at the Washington museum, and I asked ‘What have you got from the Schindler plant?' And they said, ‘Oh we've got a violin that was played by one of the inmates.' I said, ‘Interesting.' Then there was long pause of silence from my friend on the other end, and he says ‘What do you have?'"
The date book, dated 1941, "Survived the Nazis, it survived the Soviets and now it resides here in North Adams."
English, a former antiques appraiser and auctioneer, said his decision to open the institute was a simple one.
"A good friend of mine from Williamstown, also an appraiser, recently told everyone, ‘If I gave you an appraisal over the last 10 years, basically cut it in half,'" English said. "My wife's about set to retire from the postal service after 35 years, so I took a step back and said ‘You've got to do something. You have this collection you've been collecting forever.'"
And while maybe not quite forever, since childhood is still a long time.
"I'm 55 now and I started collecting when I was probably between 10 and 12," English said. "It all started with my family. My dad was in World War II and Korea and my mother had four uncles who were in World War II and Korea, and we'd get together at family gatherings and the war would always creep in.
"Sooner or later a patch, a pin, a medal came from one of the uncles and it just never stopped, it's been one thing after another after another and it just accumulated over the years. Then when I was older and I was able to travel and get things independently - and the end result is what you see here. This is an accumulative process, and I said ‘I don't get to enjoy it, so I've got to do something with it.' And this was the logical conclusion from that. I also had always had an interest in history, and thought if you could hold a piece of history, it was magical."
English said that one of his driving forces is keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.
"[The Institute] is the only one of its kind in New England," he said. "We have four institutions that are teaching Holocaust studies, but no one deals with the actual artifacts, and in just a few short years, the book on this period will be closed.
"Let's put it this way, a child entering kindergarten, before he or she graduates from high school, will see the last Holocaust survivor pass. We are at a critical point, all we'll have are these items that say, ‘I was there, I witnessed this."
He added that while many of these records will be available on a computer, it's not the same as talking to a survivor, or seeing the items.
English has lofty ambitions for the institute, but is confident that once people visit, they will also see the importance of what he is trying to accomplish.
"I have spent 40 years of my life collecting," English said, "now I just want to orchestrate this into something bigger and better. I know in my heart of hearts that the world will come here, they will stay here, they will study here and they will walk away enriched.
"You have to create a big enough stop sign, if not they will blow right past," he added. "If the right connections can be made, I can see this in its own physical structure in five years. I want it to be here [in the Berkshires]. I don't have any children, so I want to leave a lasting legacy. We're lucky to live in a region that has museums started by single individuals - the Clark and the Berkshire Museum from the Crane family."
And those that have come have been impressed by what they have seen.
"They leave and say this is better than the one in D.C.," English said, "better than the one in Israel, Yav Vashem."
"I've had tons of people come in and say this is something new, vibrant and fresh. It's just that I'm here alone" he said. "I want to be an equal partner in keeping people here maybe an extra day. I'm happy to work with the institutions - I've worked with them before. And I feel like I am swimming upstream to get people from the region here. This is organic as it gets."
"Imagine. There is more of this at home, this is only the extreme tip of the iceberg."
The New England Holocaust Institute is open every day except Wednesday.