The shirt in the foreground was worn by a political prisoner in Auschwitz.

Comprehensive Auschwitz exhibition in New York City explores horrors, rise of anti-Semitism to spread awareness of Auschwitz and honor victims.

By Alice Burdick Schweiger

The most comprehensive Holocaust exhibition about Auschwitz ever seen in North America opened this month at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Dedicated to victims of Auschwitz, the goal of “Auschwitz: Not Long ago. Not Far Away.” is to make sure no one ever forgets, especially as anti-Semitism is spreading again today.

A study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany reported that 41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of millennials say they don’t know about the Auschwitz death camp, where more than a million Jews and others, including Poles, Roma people and gays, were executed. And 22 percent of millennials say they haven’t even heard of the Holocaust.

“Seventy-four years ago, after the world saw the haunting pictures from Auschwitz, no one in their right mind wanted to be associated with the Nazis,” Ron Lauder, founder and chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Committee and president of the World Jewish Congress, said in a statement. “This exhibit reminds them, in the starkest ways, where anti-Semitism can ultimately lead, and the world should never go there again. The title of this exhibit is so appropriate because this was not so long ago, and not so far away.”

Bruce C. Ratner, chairman of the museum’s board, agrees and looks to the future: “As the title of the exhibit suggests, Auschwitz is not ancient history but living memory, warning us to be vigilant, haunting us with the admonition ‘Never Again.’ It is a prod to look around the world and mark the ongoing atrocities against vulnerable people.”

The exhibition features more than 700 original objects and 400 photographs never seen in this country. They are on loan mostly from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum as well as more than 20 institutions and private collections around the world.

To house the massive exhibition, the museum’s core exhibition was removed and the space was redesigned. The Auschwitz exhibition consists of 20 galleries spanning three floors. An audio guide given to each visitor upon entry details the items on display.

Included are hundreds of personal possessions, such as suitcases, eyeglasses, photos, shoes, socks and clothes, that belonged to survivors and victims of the horrific concentration camp. In one glass case, a child’s shoe is on display with the sock neatly tucked inside. We are left to wonder who put that sock in his shoe and were they expecting the child to shower and then retrieve it?

Auschwitz was located 31 miles west of Krakow in the small southern Polish town Oswiecim that dates to the Middle Ages. Jews were a part of its society for centuries. Auschwitz-Birkenau was conceived and initially constructed to house 100,000 Soviet prisoners of war and slave labor before it became a death factory.

Up to approximately 80 people were crammed in a freight car when they were deported to Auschwitz. Upon their return, the empty freight cars were filled with their possessions. Collection of Musealia. ©Musealia

Ultimately, some 1.1 million Jews and thousands of others were killed there. Many who arrived at Auschwitz were sent directly from the overcrowded, sealed, windowless boxcars to the gas chambers and crematoria.

A German-made Model-2 boxcar, like those used to transport people to Auschwitz, sits outside the museum. In a video, survivors talk of the horrible conditions and the stench inside those boxcars.

Viewers also can see concrete posts that were part of the barbed wire fence at the Auschwitz camp as well as a part of the original barrack for prisoners at the killing center.

Concrete posts that were once part of the fence of the Auschwitz camp (1940-1945). These posts were covered in barbed and electrified wire, ensuring that no prisoner could escape. Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, OświEcim, Poland. ©Musealia

On display, too, are the operating table, test tubes and instruments used in medical experiments. There’s a gas mask used by the SS and a model of a gas chamber door used in crematoria 2, 3,4 and 5 — and testimonies from survivors of the camp. To show the striking contrast between the suffering, starving victims and the perpetrators, there are photos of Rudolf Hess at his nearby residence with his family enjoying the outdoors.

The exhibition traces Nazi ideology and the roots of anti-Semitism to understand what happened before the gas chambers were created. Discrimination and bigotry against Jews existed long before Hitler came to power.

In one room, there’s an anti-Jewish proclamation issued in 1551 by Ferdinand I given to Hermann Goring for his birthday by German security chief Reinhard Heydrich. 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.

As often is the case with Holocaust survivors, they have a longing to erase hate from the world. In a video seen near the end of the exhibition, survivors urge viewers to refrain from hate and to work for peace.
This exhibition was seen in Madrid, where it originated, before coming to New York. Clearly, this important and moving exhibition is both a reminder and a warning.

Details

“Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” is on view through January 2020 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, NYC. Entry is by timed tickets available at mjhnyc.org or (646) 437-4202. Audio guide included with admission. Tickets are $25, flexible entry any time on a specific day; $16, adults; $12, seniors and people with disabilities; and $10, students and veterans.

 

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