- Experts have found a steady rise in anti-Semitic attacks in recent years in the US, reaching near-historic levels.
- Informed by its producers’ concern about rising anti-Semitism, “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away,” at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage identifies the evolution of social and political elements that led to at least one million deaths in the concentration camp and millions of more deaths in the Holocaust at large.
- The exhibition is the largest on Auschwitz ever presented in the US, and is about to open in New York City, featuring more than 700 original objects and 400 photographs never before seen in this country.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
On April 27, the last day of Passover, a gunman killed one person when he opened fire during services at a Poway, California synagogue. The shooting came on the six-month anniversary of a shooting that killed 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
These tragic attacks unfolded alongside a steady climb of violent anti-Semitic attacks in the US. Days after the shooting in Poway the Anti-Defamation League announced that the already unprecedented rates of anti-semitic attacks doubled nationally from 2017 to 2018.
The uptick in hate-based violence targeting Jewish people sets a tense and appropriate context for “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away,” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. The unprecedented exhibit of artifacts set to debut this month tracks the devolution of political unrest and cultural divide into the genocide of six million Jews and other targeted groups through the lens of the Holocaust’s largest center of death, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
The first sections of the exhibit focus on the basic social and political tensions that, in conjunction with widely spread racist philosophy and propaganda, put vulnerable groups like Jewish, black, gay, disabled, and Roma people in the crosshairs of a frustrated society and leaders who favoured misinformation.
Luis Ferreiro, director of the international exhibition firm Musealia that produced the exhibit, said the timeline was critical to understanding the significance of the Holocaust in real terms.
“Auschwitz did not start with the gas chambers. Hate does not happen overnight: it builds up slowly among people,” Ferreiro said. “It does so with words and thoughts, with small everyday acts, with prejudices.”
Among the hundreds of artifacts in the exhibit meant to illustrate the physical reality of life in the line of crushing prejudice and persecution are propaganda materials, concrete posts, an original camp barrack, and a freight car like those used to transport prisoners, displayed outside the museum’s main entrance.
Here’s a look at the historic exhibit.
Outside the museum stands a German World War II era freight car like those used to transport approximately 80 prisoners at a time to Auschwitz.
The forced journeys to ghettos and concentration camps could take days and were usually a sign of sure death after they reached their destination.
Simon Gronowski, an 11-year-old who jumped from one of the cars in 1943 and secured his freedom described the conditions in a 2013 BBC interview:
“We were packed like a herd of cattle. We had only one bucket for 50 people. How could we use it? How could we empty it? Besides, it would have been impossible to get to it.
There was no food, no drink. There were no seats so we either sat or lay down on the floor. I was in the rear right corner of the car, with my mother. It was very dark. There was a pale gleam coming from a vent in the roof but it was stifling and there was no water to be had.”
Authentic concrete posts and barbed wire that were once part of Auschwitz’s security perimeter were part of the exhibit. Electrified wire connected guard towers around some parts of the camp, posing a psychological and physical threat to prisoners inside.
Of the 928 prisoners who attempted to escape from the Auschwitz camp complex, 433 prisoners failed and were either captured and sent back to the camp, or shot during their attempt. Others were successful, died during the pursuit, or there is no recorded information about their success.
Kazimierz Piechowski successfully escaped Auschwitz on June 20, 1942 with four other prisoners. According to a 2011 interview with the Guardian, the men first left the camp under the guise of taking trash away, then impersonated officers and in a car meant for the commandant. They drove to a checkpoint on the camp’s outer security perimeter, where one of the passengers ordered the senior SS officer to lift the gate, and he obeyed.
“When the commandant heard in Berlin that four prisoners had escaped he asked: ‘How the bloody hell could they escape in my own car, in our own uniforms, and with our ammunition?'” Piechowski later told The Guardian. “They could not believe that people they did not think had any intelligence took them [for a ride].”
A poster for German schools pit “German” children, in the left columns, against “Jewish” children, and suggests “The soul of the race speaks in the face.”
This is an early example of pseudoscientific eugenics campaigns that claimed Jewish people were biologically inferior, as an excuse for sterilization and discrimination.
In 1933, the Nazis created the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring which supported thousands of forced sterilizations of non-Aryan races, including Jews and gypsies, whom Adolf Hitler deemed inferior.
By 1940, Hitler’s push for what he called a pure gene pool was expanded to euthanizing Germans with mental or physical disabilities, including the blind and deaf, with gas or lethal injection, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Several suitcases and other luggage brought to Auschwitz that were confiscated from prisoners as they were stripped of their belongings and given uniforms upon arrival at the camp were on display.
The luggage represents what was left behind as Jews and other prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, separated from their families and personal belongings at the beginning of a process that, with shaving heads and mandating uniforms, aimed to also rid them of their individual identities.
As the prisoners stepped out of the sealed train cars, Nazi officers treated the separations as a formal process, before the reality of the camp was revealed.
“Everything was as silent as an aquarium, or as in certain dream sequences. We had expected something more apocalyptic: they seemed simple police agents. It was disconcerting and disarming. Someone dared to ask for his luggage: they replied, ‘luggage afterwards’. Someone else did not want to leave his wife: they said, ‘together again afterwards’. Many mothers did not want to be separated from their children: they said ‘good, good, stay with child’. They behaved with the calm assurance of people doing their normal duty of every day. But Renzo stayed an instant too long to say good-bye to Francesca, his fiancée, and with a single blow they knocked him to the ground. It was their everyday duty.”
One bears the name and personal information of Czech doctor Kurt Stein, a chilling symbol of the identities prisoners had to leave behind once they reached the camp.
Stein was deported to a ghetto in 1942 before being killed on October 20, 1944 in Auschwitz. His suitcase was emptied of all valuables before ending up in a private collection 70 years later.
These buttons were among the small personal items that Auschwitz guards took off prisoners in the camp.
Small household and personal items were confiscated when prisoners arrived at Auschwitz and a work group of prisoners called the “Kanada Kommando” gathered the belongings in a warehouse, where they sorted items to be sent back to Germany.
This part of the exhibit details the process that saw German money deposited into an SS bank account, precious metals sent to SS headquarters, hair and useless textiles saved as raw materials, and usable personal and household items sent to German settlers in Poland.
The process was named after the German spelling of “Canada,” because the country symbolized enormous wealth.
Models of a large door and gas column mimic the layout of the gas chambers that were erected at the camp that were ultimately used to murder approximately one million deported Jews.
Auschwitz had four gas chambers as part of a formalized process of mass murder. The complexes were masked as a hygiene center, where prisoners were led to undress before entering the chamber under the guise of bathing.
Prisoners who were part of the Sonderkommando work group were responsible for salvaging women’s hair, metal dental work, and jewellery from the bodies before they were burned.
The largest artifact housed towards the end of the exhibit is an original barrack from one of three complexes that comprised Auschwitz, which quite literally surrounds the viewer with the grisly reality of life in the camp.
It was close to impossible to imagine at least dozens of adults living year-round in the relatively small, unheated, and unlit cabin. The barracks and the bare wooden bunk beds that comprised prisoners’ quarters are striking symbols of how the Nazis drained every last bit of comfort and normalcy from prisoners’ life in the camp.
All in all, the exhibit was alarming, which was its intended effect.
Its overwhelming narrative traced the danger of bigotry, misinformation, and vindictive leaders to controlling the masses for harmful objectives. However, the exhibit had a promising conclusion with the international efforts for Holocaust education by groups like the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which finances preservation initiatives, and is supported by an American counterpart, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation.
By preserving the camp and its artifacts, the foundation provides a gripping lesson for the site’s two million annual visitors about the horrors of the camp.
“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away,” runs through January 3, 2020. For more information about visiting the exhibit, click here.
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