On May 8, 2019, 74 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, an exhibit of 700 original objects and 400 photographs on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. At 18,000 square feet and three floors, this is not an easy exhibit to view; however, as a tribute to the many who suffered and/or perished in the camps, and as an eye-opening, up-close glimpse into the often shocking depravity of the human condition, “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” is a must-see.
The first artifact on display, a vintage German freight train car used to transport Jews to the ghettos and extermination camps in Poland, sits outside the Museum and sets a somber tone for the remainder of the exhibit. We’ve all seen photographs and film footage of German transports, but standing in close proximity to an actual rail car used for mass deportation of innocent men, women, and children is surreal and more than sobering. The first room of the exhibit inside the museum features pieces of the concrete fence posts and the wire that surrounded the Auschwitz camp. Thus begins an unsettling, but necessary, metaphoric walk through history; no museum visitor is unaffected.
Ten Artifacts from Anne Frank’s Amsterdam house are on display in the museum, including a drawing by Anne and the door handle to the infamous bookcase that concealed the secret annex in Amsterdam. More telling is, perhaps, a handful of beans next to Anne’s drawing. Anne wrote about these beans in her diary. In the annex in 1942, a 55 pound bag of smuggled beans broke open; beans scattered everywhere. After the war, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, returned to the attic and discovered the exhibited beans still stuck between attic floorboards. Doubtless, those simple, little beans, remnants of the Frank family’s time in hiding, were a source of comfort and sorrow for Mr. Frank.
The exhibit includes uniforms of Polish political prisoners, identifying prisoner badges, prisoners’ works of art, and many personal items and mementos seized from those arriving on the transports. Suitcases, shoes, eyeglasses, kitchen utensils, hairbrushes, combs, necklaces - even a broken seashell, someone’s personal treasure, attest to the lives the deportees anticipated. A visit to the upper floors of the museum grants a peek into the stark, cruel reality of life within the camps. An original wall from an Auschwitz barrack (shockingly thin wood, hardly a shield for the inclement weather) is displayed, as well as a prisoner’s bunk bed, prisoners’ blankets (thin and coarse), kitchen kettle (primitive, dirty) used to prepare cabbage soup for the prisoners, and much more. The exhibit does not overlook the Nazi regime and its collaborators. A desk belonging to the Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Hoss, made of far sturdier wood than the barrack wall, is on display, as well as Heinrich Himmler’s SS helmet and his annotated copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and medical instruments and patient chair used during the unspeakable medical experiments and studies done on Auschwitz prisoners.
Auschwitz. Not long ago, Not far away is a troubling experience; attendees’ emotions, though palpable, are difficult to quantify. There’s shock. There’s sorrow. There’s reverence and respect. And there's a deep shame for the human condition that succumbed to evil and created and promoted such depravity.
Auschwitz survivor, chemist/writer Promo Levi, recognized these emotions in those who looked upon the liberated camps. He said, “When the Russian soldiers reached the barbed wire, they did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by confused restraint which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist.”
Auschwitz. Not Long Ago, Not Far Away will be on view until January 3, 2020. Do not miss it. Do not look away.
As Promo Levi said, “It happened, therefore, it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”