As someone who has been to Auschwitz, I’ve walked in the footsteps of the 1.5 million people who perished there. Nothing can compare to that haunting experience. It was harrowing and swept through my soul leaving a plague that has never been lifted since. However, for people who have never been and/or will never visit the camp, a tour of the new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” may most likely equally as jarring and certainly just as important.
Nazis tried to take down Auschwitz, but not all the buildings were burned at the end of World War 2. Seven tons of human hair were discovered and so much evidence has been left behind. With all the fear being inflicted on America after the recent synagogue shootings in San Diego and Pittsburgh, it’s more important than ever to be reminded of what anti-Semitism and extreme hatred can lead to. And if this exhibit doesn’t teach someone that very lesson, nothing will.
My first thought when I entered the exhibit was about the buses parked outside the museum and the groups of children being given tours of the exhibit. There may have never been a more important exhibit to take children old enough to understand to than this one and I am so glad to see them coming in droves. It also dawned on me that the name of the exhibit is very fitting. After all, the Holocaust occurred in the last century and the place where it happened is only a plane ride away from New York City. The exhibit is proof that we must not look away – sometimes criminal acts are taking place right under our nose.
A tour of the exhibit takes two hours and I highly recommend doing the audio tour. It’s on multiple floors and the tour is a broad overview of the events that led up to the Holocaust showing that hatred for Jews goes way back in time. On display is an anti-Jewish proclamation issued in 1551 by Ferdinand I that was given to Hermann Göring by German security chief Reinhard Heydrich on the occasion of Göring’s birthday during the Holocaust. The proclamation required Jews to identify themselves with a “yellow ring” on their clothes. Heydrich noted that, 400 years later, the Nazis were completing Ferdinand’s work.
Hitler’s vision of a racially free Germany gave Germans a feeling of belonging, and the exhibit shows how the German public fell under his spell very quickly. On display are propaganda posters offering citizens employment and cheaper holidays. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made a film used by the party to promote their values. I had never seen this film until now. Watching it and another video of Hitler speaking to the Greater German Reichstag in 1939 made my stomach turn.
50,000 of 400,000 prisoners were photographed upon entering Auschwitz. The mug shots on display there have never left my mind. The prisoners are shown in three poses and display their reason for arrest and nationality. They were seen as subhuman and the photos are harrowing to see. They are on display at this exhibit, too.
When people came to Auschwitz, they arrived with their belongings in cases, thinking they were being given a chance to start a new life. Most of these people were in their last hours of life. The Nazis saved these items, and many are on display in this exhibit – their pots, their pans, their brushes. It will break your heart to see them. All of their belongings were stolen by the Nazis. It was a process of theft – of lives, of material items, of integrity.
More than 80% of Jews were killed upon arrival at Auschwitz. Very few children survived. On display are cans of Zyklon-B, which killed victims in 20-30 minutes. There is even a shower head used to deceive people in gas chambers. In one video, a Hungarian survivor describes a Rabbi who was forced to throw babies into the crematoriums. He would say the Mourner’s Kaddish for each one. Ever since then, the survivor has nightmares when he hears babies crying. Who can blame him?
Even though the Nazis tried to eliminate all evidence of its destruction of human lives, and many people, including professors, have tried to negate the events that led to the death of millions, so much evidence was left to prove that it happened. Much of it has been flown here from Poland to be presented like the event itself is on trial. The exhibition includes an original German-made Model 2 freight train car used for the deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps; an actual barrack from Auschwitz III-Monowitz; unpublished memoirs and personal artifacts; and video after video of survivors recounting their painful experiences.
Other items that are jarring include Dr. George Renno’s coat – the doctor who developed the idea of gas chambers and oversaw the murder of 28,000 people. In 1997, he stated that he was not guilty; Rudolph Hoss’ desk, where decisions were made to kill Jews; a whip used at Auschwitz; and pictures of Nazi families living the good life at Auschwitz while people were dying.
There cannot and should not ever be a denial of the events that killed so many innocent people and an exhibit such as this one holds everything that happened as the truth. The most haunting piece of evidence in the exhibit is of a simple child’s shoe with a sock tied inside. The narrator on the audio tour speaks of how the shoe was taken off after the child was selected to go to the crematorium and how the mother may have tucked it in sweetly – or a Nazi may have ripped it off.
“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” was conceived of by Musealia, co-producers of the exhibition, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. It was curated by an international panel of experts, including world-renowned scholars Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, and Paul Salmons, in an unprecedented collaboration with historians and curators at the Research Center at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, led by Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz.
Throughout its presentation of the exhibit, the Museum will host a series of related public, educational, and scholarly programming, featuring world-renowned experts on the Holocaust. The Museum also will expand its work with students in the tri-state area and introduce complementary educational tools for in-class and onsite use.