Rebels on the railroad: Confronting El Paso’s Holocaust history

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The railway tracks from where hundred thousands of people was directed to the gas chambers to murdered immediately inside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau or Auschwitz II. in Oswiecim, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. The commemorations for the victims of the Holocaust at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27, 1945, will be mostly online in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — A local museum is honoring victims and survivors of the Holocaust by hosting a series of educational events.

“The importance, for us, is of course to remember the victims of the Holocaust. The six million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered just for who they were because of racism, and anti-Semitism and ideology of hate,” Jamie Flores, executive director of the El Paso Holocaust Museum told KTSM 9 News. 

This week, educational events will be hosted at the museum between Thursday and Sunday. Holocaust Remembrance Day coincides with rising rates of hate speech and violence across the country. 

El Paso knows the suffering caused by hatred firsthand following the Aug. 3 mass shooting at the Cielo Vista Walmart.

But the Borderland shares a history in participating in practices designed to deter minorities from entering the U.S. and marginalizing people of color. Some practices from the area influenced the Nazi regime of the 1940s.

In the early 20th Century, El Paso lawmakers experimented with procedures designed to mitigate migrant crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border that were later studied and weaponized by Nazis during World War II.

The practice coincided with an ongoing conflict between U.S. authorities and Mexican revolutionary factions battling to change the future of their country.

Ongoing armed conflict in Mexico and anti-Mexican sentiment brewed a climate of racial intolerance and prejudice in El Paso’s early history.

Local leaders on both sides of the border were confident the threats brought on by Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa were alleviated during the winter of 1916. On Dec. 30, 1916, Carrancista Gen. Alvaro Obregon was honored by the city of El Paso for ushering in an era of peace in Mexico that would protect U.S. business interests by calling for the removal of Villa.

Gen. Obregon was feted by the likes of El Paso Mayor Tom Lea, U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing and Mexican Consul Andres G. Garcia, who all anticipated impending prosperity from the American mining interests in Chihuahua. 

The celebration, however, would prove premature and fatal. 

Carrancista soldiers secured Chihuahua City and the surrounding region while Gen. Obregon declared the region safe for American investment and travel — neither of which sat well with Villa.

It did not take long for Villa to react, warning the Cusihuiriachic Mining Company it was no longer safe. Villa informed the company’s manager, C.R. Watson, American employees would not be protected either; they needed to flee the country. 

Watson gathered the employees and boarded a train for safe passage in El Paso. 

Gen. Obregon insisted, however, that Watson and the men make plans to return to the mines, passports and salvo conductos were obtained. 

The defiance would not stand.

On the afternoon of January 12, 1916, in Santa Ysabel, Chihuahua, 100 soldiers under the command of Villista Col. Pablo Lopez stormed a passenger train containing the returning miners. Five American men attempted to flee the train after hearing cries of “Viva Villa!” and “Death to the gringos,” but were quickly captured and executed.

The Mexican soldiers ordered the remaining American passengers to exit the train and strip their clothes. Lopez ordered two of his men to kill the American miners.

The next day, the train transporting the remains of the 18 slain Americans at Santa Ysabel arrived in Ciudad Juarez and then made its way to the Santa Fe Railway freight depot in El Paso. Civilians unloaded the corpses, which were then given an armed escort to funeral parlors.

American soldiers at Fort Bliss were outraged and swarmed the streets of downtown El Paso. The soldiers attacked two Mexican men near Chihuahuita, where more violence ensued. 

“Because of the attack — because they executed the Americans — there was an incredible backlash once the train arrived in El Paso,” Yolanda Leyva, Chicana Historian and Associate Professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, tells KTSM.

“Both military men and citizens of El Paso who were white began to beat Mexican-Americans who had nothing to do with the attack. Some men were attacked, but also women, children and elderly people were attacked,” she continued.

The violence in Chihuahuita escalated into a riot, with about 1,500 men participating.

Residents of El Segundo Barrio caught wind of the riot downtown and were activated, taking with them wooden bats and sticks, metal pipes and other objects that could be used as a weapon. 

“And the tensions became so high that the military had to come in, declare martial law to stop the Mexican-Americans, and that event really shaped the history about how people felt about each other for many years afterward,” said Leyva.

Fort Bliss Gen. John J. Pershing ordered the Sixteenth Infantry to downtown El Paso because local law enforcement was overwhelmed. 

According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), American soldiers marched through downtown El Paso in search of weapons and Villa sympathizers long after midnight. Curfews for all residents were issued, unless a person had a signed permit by the provost marshal.

Americans and Mexicans continued to collide in the streets, leading Pershing to declare martial law and set up a containment plan (known as “Dead Lines”) in Mexican neighborhoods and the Santa Fe Bridge port of entry in downtown El Paso. TSHA reports that Pershing claimed Mexicans needed to be separated to prevent more rioting, and the Dead Line directive created a ghetto-like state by restricting residents of Chihuahuita from leaving and Americans from entering.

The order extended so far as border crossings, preventing Americans access into Ciudad Juarez and prohibiting Mexicans from coming into El Paso. The Dead Line was enforced for about a year, negatively affecting the downtown economy and race relations along the border. 

“Tensions really escalated in 1917 when Mexican people crossing the border had come to El Paso to work, for example. El Paso was known, when I was growing up, as the maid capital of the world because everybody had a domestic worker,” said Leyva. 

“Hundreds of people came to El Paso a day to work and they were forced to take what were called baths in very heavy chemicals, including DDT and, in the 1920s, Zyklon B — which was used by the Nazis in the extermination camps. So these chemicals were being used on people and they forced them to take their clothes off and then the clothes were put into a dryer. They would come out very wrinkled, so people knew who was forced to take these baths and it was very humiliating for them,” said Leyva.

The gasoline baths used on Mexican migrants were already infamous in El Paso.

In March 1916, a group of mostly Mexican inmates at the El Paso City Jail — as part of Mayor Tom Lea’s disinfection campaign (which ordered gasoline baths at international bridges) — were forced to strip naked. City officials filled two bathtubs with gasoline and other chemicals, one for the inmates’ uniforms (gasoline, creosote and formaldehyde) and the other for the inmates themselves (gasoline, coal, oil and vinegar).

A match was struck.

According to El Paso Herald, “the air was so heavily impregnated with the explosive vapor the flash of the match set the whole jail in blaze instantly.” 

About 50 inmates’ bodies caught on fire. The thick-soled boots of firemen melted under the heat of the metal floor. 

The city said it was an accident. 

A grand jury was assembled to determine whether the tragedy was criminally negligent, which Mayor Tom Lea vehemently refuted, citing “the police department was in no way responsible, if there was any responsibility.” 

Lea was criticized in an article by Dr. A. Margo, who said “The mayor of the city of El Paso announced that the whole thing was an unavoidable accident and that nobody was to blame. These kinds of accidents happen pretty often to Mexicans in Texas.”

The city’s dismissal of the fire intensified the already fraught race relations in the city, prompting retaliation by Pancho Villa. 

Villa’s soldiers killed 17 Americans during an attack in Columbus, New Mexico, four days later. 

The humiliating baths were later adopted for extermination purposes of the Nazis during WWII.

David Dorado Romo, author of Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez 1983-1923, archival documents underscore links between disinfection facilities in the Borderland and Desinfektuibskammern (disinfection chambers) used by the Nazis across Germany and Poland. 

During the 1920s, Mexicans crossing into the U.S. were deloused by government officials using Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide. 

According to Romo, El Paso’s use of Zyklon B on immigrants was used as an example of a successful model in a scientific German journal in 1938. The author of the paper was later convicted for war crimes during the Nuremberg trials. 

On the morning of January 28, 1917, Carmelita Torres, a 17-year old domestic worker from Ciudad Juarez, crossed the Santa Fe International Bridge and refused to take a gasoline bath. Torres exited the streetcar she was on and convinced 30 more domestic workers to leave with her. 

An hour later, more than 200 Mexican domestic workers — all women — joined Torres and blocked traffic into El Paso in protest. By noon, estimates say there were thousands present to rebel against the humiliating chemical baths. 

Many protestors lay down across the tracks of the trolley cars, and the women seized the motor controllers once the streetcars were inert from the motormen. 

The women-led group of protestors were confronted by Carrancista General Francisco Murguia’s menacing cavalry (called “el esquadron de la muerta”) but did not back down. 

According to the El Paso Times:

“The scene reminded one of bees swarming. The hands of the feminine mob would claw and tear at the tops of the passing cars. The glass rear windows of the autos were torn out, the tops torn to pieces and parts of the fittings such as lamps and horns were torn away.”

In 1917, 127,173 Mexicans were sprayed at the Santa Fe International Bridge as part of Lea’s policies.

Mexican workers coming into the U.S. through Texas borders were subject to disinfection through the 1950s.

According to Flores, addressing contemporary racism, xenophobia and hatred means confronting the horrors of the Holocaust.

“The importance of remembering and carrying on those lessons remains incredibly relevant,” she said. “As we all know, hatred, racism, and antisemitism are as high as ever.”

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