iLbrarian Joel Bangilan arrives each workday at the Holocaust Museum Houston and logs in to the WiFi using the password “Hope is greater than hate.” That simple affirmation speaks to the museum’s overall message of survival, evolution, and human growth.
“People say to me, ‘Oh, you go to work at the Holocaust Museum. Isn’t that depressing?’ I tell them that my job really isn’t depressing because our message is one of hope,” he explains.
The Holocaust Museum highlights Holocaust Remembrance Week this month, starting on Monday the 23rd and culminating the following Friday on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Bangilan, an openly gay man, sees the museum as an entry point for further research about the 6 million people who died in the Holocaust, as well as the lessons gleaned from this gruesome history that are still relevant today.
“What attracted me and kept me here is the complex curiosity many people have regarding the Holocaust. They might have read The Diary of Anne Frank, but many people don’t have a complete picture of the Holocaust,” he notes. “What happens here at the Holocaust Museum is that they have a chance to discover things they may not have known before. Once they go through the exhibits, the museum’s library serves to extend that experience and give them something to take home that they can read on their own to satisfy that self-driven curiosity.”
The museum is very specific to Houston, as it was founded by Holocaust survivors who have resided in the Greater Houston area. This local emphasis can be seen in its collection of survivors’ testimonies from those who came to Houston after the war. The museum has preserved both video and written testimonies, as well as artifacts donated by these survivors.
Spanning 57,000 square feet, the museum ranks as the nation’s fourth-largest Holocaust museum, and it is unique in offering fully bilingual exhibits in English and Spanish. The three-story property contains a welcome center, four permanent galleries, two galleries for temporary exhibits, classrooms, a research library, a cafe, a 187-seat indoor theater, and a 175-seat outdoor amphitheater.
The artifacts contained in the museum and library show the many different facets of the Nazi regime’s unspeakable human-rights abuses, including the barbaric treatment of gay men.
“One of our goals is to have a library collection that reflects art [from] our community, as well as the people who’ve been left out of history,” Bangilan adds. That includes looking at the treatment of gay men under the Nazi regime, [as well as] some of our own [local Houston] survivors. The Nazis treated the Jewish community one way, and gay men were treated in a very different way.”
Bangilan explains how the Nazis persecuted gay men, but did not systematically persecute lesbians. “If you’re Jewish, you were viewed as an enemy of the state. Gay men were perceived as enemies only because they didn’t procreate in the way that [so-called “Aryan” Germans] did in their eugenics program,” he says, adding that approximately 100,000 Holocaust victims were gay men who were arrested and killed.
“The great thing about the museum is that we have tools to help you understand that those people were real. There’s evidence of their existence, and these were individuals who contributed to culture and society on a global scale,” he says.
Bangilan posits that the Holocaust was not just an isolated incident but an ongoing human-rights issue, with genocides continuing to besmirch human history. The United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but the conditions it denounces still exist to this day.
“Human rights [abuses] affect all of us across the world. There’s the situation of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. We have the transatlantic slave trade. Much of the oppression that’s happening across the world, and specifically in South America, is causing an influx of people who migrate north through Mexico and into the United States. Then in American society, we have the human-rights issues of the LGBTQ community. Human-rights issues are inclusive of a lot of people; this is not just one singular event. Hate is a global disease throughout all of humanity.”
He also believes the lessons learned from the Holocaust can help us be more vigilant about the current mistreatment of marginalized groups.
“We’ve seen the pattern of the Holocaust and other genocides throughout history,” Bangilan adds. “Studying the history helps us identify the warning signs—heavy amounts of censorship, marginalizing and separating people. Understanding this history gives us the insight to say something else is coming up, and that’s not the course that we want our country to go in.”
Despite the ongoing human-rights violations, Bangilan still references the hope he holds for the future. “Nelson Mandela said education is one of the best tools to change the world. I think our role here at the museum is to let people educate themselves, find out more, and elevate their awareness.”
What: Holocaust Museum Houston
Where: 5401 Caroline in the Museum District
When: Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday–Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free to members, and the museum is free to all on Thursdays from 2 to 5 p.m.
Info: 713-527-1614 or visit hmh.org
This article appears in the January 2023 edition of OutSmart magazine.