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New Berkshires Holocaust museum works to find its audience

Photos of a prisoner at Auschwitz are displayed at the New England Holocaust Institute and Museum.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Photos of a prisoner at Auschwitz are displayed at the New England Holocaust Institute and Museum.

A Holocaust museum is the last thing you would expect to see on Eagle Street in North Adams, the smallest city in Massachusetts. But a Holocaust museum is exactly what Darrell English has opened here, just down the street from the local hot spot, Jack’s Hot Dog Stand. Both storefronts are about the same size.

In an inconspicuous, rented retail space that formerly was a bookshop, English has put on display a small fraction of his vast collection of Holocaust-related materials. Every day except for Wednesday, from 10 a.m to 5 p.m., you can find him inside, answering the occasional call, planning new displays, and welcoming passersby who wander in.

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The entire museum is a single, unassuming room. But that one room is packed full of history.

English opened the doors to his unlikely museum, which he calls the New England Holocaust Institute, in March. His current display contains 250 items, arranged with painstaking care in narrative chronology, that tell the story of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and the ensuing massacre of 6 million Jews and over a million other victims in the 1930s and ’40s.

Even this small sampling — English called it “the tip of the iceberg” — hints at the astounding range and depth of his collection, which includes approximately 10,000 World War II artifacts and roughly 3,000 Holocaust items, gathered over the course of 40 years. Some objects seem to spring from the pages of textbooks: 19th-century anti-Semitic posters, a propaganda film strip touting the benefits of the Nazi Party’s euthanasia program, a Brownshirt uniform in mint condition, a “Jude” star from 1930s Germany, a photo of Hitler in civilian uniform speaking with his closest advisers, a Zyklon-B poison gas canister, a morphology reference text that belonged to the medical staff at Auschwitz (where the infamous Dr. Mengele wrought his terror), a concentration camp uniform, and a calendar book that belonged to Oskar Schindler.

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A roundish man with messy gray-brown hair, English, 55, who has no Jewish heritage, was born in North Adams and lived there until graduating from North Adams State College (now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts). After years selling furniture and antiques in upstate New York, he and his wife returned to North Adams eight years ago.

Standing amid his propaganda posters, which he considers jewels of his collection, English described his earliest acquisitions, his eyes widening with excitement.

“I was a kid, maybe about 10 or 12,” he said. “My dad’s friend Phil was moving to Florida. He went to his Cadillac, popped the trunk, and pulled out four German helmets with chin guards. He had daggers, bayonets, medals, patches, and pins — all the cool stuff you could ever imagine. It was like Christmas all wrapped up in every other holiday. He had a big old cigar. He was like, ‘Here, kid. These are yours.’ ”

English’s boyish pleasure in military items is still very much alive. But it has been deepened by ambition and a sense of historical purpose.

“I’m really hoping that I can build the ultimate museum for this stuff here in the Berkshires,” he said. “It’s the legacy I want to leave. I’ve never had children; this will be my lineage locally. I want to be remembered as that fine kook who did something.”

English does not think like a typical collector. “Value is perceived in two ways,” he said. “I perceive intellectual as opposed to monetary value. Most collector friends I have, they don’t understand me. I go after some things they would never think of going after. I don’t have to have ‘all five’ — I go after something that tells a story.”

He is not a wealthy man. He spends most of his money on historical items, and he often sells off items to acquire new ones.

“My vision is this: to eventually have a museum big enough to tell the full story, side by side: WWII, and the buildup of the Nazi Party and the Holocaust. So that people get a clear visual of what went on,” he said.

In order to realize a project of this scale, however, he will have to get financial backers, and so far he has not found any. Just for comparison, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington cost $168 million to build, funded by the federal government and 200,000 private donations. It employs nearly 400 staffers and 300 volunteers, and has seen 34.8 million visitors since it opened in 1993, according to its website.

English has no staff, no grants, no private donations — yet. The museum does have a website (www.nehi2012.exai.com) up and running.

“I’m not a grant writer,” he said. “I’m not the person to make phone calls — the beg and plead stuff. I’m not that way. I’m the person out on the road hunting this stuff.”

But for now he is also the sole administrator.

Even locally, the museum has only just begun to make ripples. Rachel Barenblat, rabbi of the Beth Israel congregation in North Adams, said she had never seen the collection.

Nonetheless, some local officials are optimistic about English’s prospects. “North Adams has always been historically a place where ambitious and creative people have made their home,” said Veronica Bosley, who works in the North Adams Mayor’s Office of Tourism and Cultural Development. “Darrell is a North Adams personality. His collection is definitely worthy of a dedicated space, and I think it’s a really good addition to the cultural attractions that we already have here.”

North Adams is already home to a rich cultural scene that includes the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), one of the largest centers for contemorary art in the counry.

English hopes to capitalize on that museum’s popularity, along with that of the Williams College Museum of Art and the Clark Museum, located in neighboring Williamstown. The museum is also a short drive north from Tanglewood, where thousands of people flock every summer.

English’s fellow military collectors are cautiously excited about his new project. “He stands a bit above the average collector,” said Ray Zyla, who runs a military paraphernalia auction house in Bouckville, N.Y. “He can hold his own and describe things, which is more than a lot of curators I’ve known. I think he did a good job in the objects that he’s collected.”

But Zyla also acknowleged the enormous challenge English faces.

“You can have the most interesting things in the world,” he said, “display them in the most interesting way, you’re still dealing with an unknown: whether or not people will want to look at it.”

Education and outreach will become a major part of the mission of his new museum, English anticipates. For the past eight years, he has partnered with nearby Clarksburg Elementary School to teach eighth- graders about the Holocaust, and he would like to begin running similar projects elsewhere.

According to Clarksburg English teacher Mike Little, English’s collection has enormous impact on young students. “The concentration camp uniform and the canister of Zyklon-B are especially powerful,” Little said. “With Darrell, you can actually touch the stuff. They have these objects in their hands and see what they were used for. To feel these actual objects is horrible.”

English hopes that his collection will keep the memory of the Holocaust alive in the Berkshires, where most schools do not have the time or resources to travel to the Holocaust museums in New York or Washington.

“Children entering kindergarten this year — by the time they finish high school they will see the last World War II combat veteran and the last Holocaust survivor pass,” English said. “That chapter will be closed. In the next few years, when the actual eyewitnesses cease to exist, this is all that will be left.”

Benjamin Soloway can be reached at
benjamin.soloway@globe.com.
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