These ordinary items are stark reminders of a civilization destroyed:
A shoe and sock ripped from the foot of an unknown child, now likely dead.
A set of black-and-white striped pajamas, once worn by a faceless person in the blistering heat or frigid cold, probably until he or she was shot, worked, starved, gassed or tortured to an early demise.
A desk belonging to a wealthy Jewish family whose members had everything, including their lives, stolen from them one awful day. Another desk behind which Rudolf Hoess, feared commandant of the vast Auschwitz murder complex in Poland, cooked up a diabolical plan to murder large numbers of Jews at once with Zyklon B gas, in an efficiently twisted effort to speed up the implementation of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution – the extermination of the Jewish people.
Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the site where 1 million Jews and thousands of other “undesirables,” including Roma, the disabled and homosexuals, met their ends, these items still hold extraordinary power. It is especially important to see them now, as the remaining survivors of the massive death camp reach the end of their lives. And as anti-Semitism around the globe, particularly in Europe, in the Middle East and right here in America, is on a steady rise.
The dead and the walking wounded must not be forgotten.
These everyday items make up the centerpieces of “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” The exhibition, now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, is billed as containing the most comprehensive collection of death camp-related artifacts ever assembled, gathered from institutions and museums worldwide. On a recent visit, there were many times we, the viewers, were overcome with emotion, and felt compelled to look away.
But if we are to uphold the battle cry of “Never Again,” we must not avert our eyes. Auschwitz must be experienced in all its cruelty, and even spots of courage and beauty: Amid the unspeakable slaughter emerged a hand-made chess set a prisoner risked his life to keep while inside the camp. We must take a hard look at Auschwitz to prevent it from ever happening again.
The exhibition starts before one even walks inside the museum. On the sidewalk out front sits a windowless, wooden train car. Listen to the headset you are given after you walk inside. You soon learn, in the words of a survivor, that each boxcar, like this one, was jammed with 150 Jews, too many even to sit down, for the long journey to Auschwitz. Each car was loaded with a single bucket filled with water, and another to collect human waste. Sanitary conditions, to put it delicately, were nonexistent.
The collection inside is startling in it ordinariness, a reminder that regular people were capable of committing demonic acts. And some people, incredibly, behaved heroically under horrific conditions.
Some people of note memorialized in the exhibit:
Witold Pilecki was a member of the Polish resistance who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. In April 1943, Pilecki escaped and returned to Warsaw to convince the resistance to attack the camp, but members of the group judged such a move to be suicidal. Pilecki wrote the first report on conditions in Auschwitz and the mass murder of Jews in the gas chambers, but the Allies ignored it. The man who escaped from the notorious camp was executed by the Soviets, who had taken over Poland, in 1948.
Trumpet-player Louis Bannet was well known as the “Dutch Louis Armstrong.” He went into hiding in 1942 as deportations of Netherlands Jews to Auschwitz began. Betrayed by a Nazi fan, he was shipped to the death camp. Sent to an audition for the camp’s orchestra, he was told he would be playing for his life. He survived that test, and managed to smuggle his trumpet by tying it to his waist as he was sent from camp to camp, until his liberation in May 1945. The trumpet stands in the museum as a symbol of defiance and hope.
Alberto Errera was a member of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz, work units made up of prisoners, usually Jews, forced to dispose of the bodies of gas chamber victims. He is credited with taking four photographs in August 1944 in and around the gas chambers that were smuggled out of the camp by the Polish resistance in a toothpaste tube. Those pictures show a group of naked women just before they enter the gas chamber and the cremation of corpses in a fire pit. He is thought to have died when he took part in an uprising by the Sonderkommandos in late 1944. These pictures, on display in the exhibit, serve as the first real evidence of Nazi atrocities.
More than seven decades after the greatest crime against humanity nearly wiped Jews from the face of the Earth, these tales of heroism and resistance, of simple survival in the face of evil, inspire us. Sadly, as the hatred of Jews increases at a dizzying pace around the globe, we must be vigilant. Never Again.
This groundbreaking exhibition brings together more than 700 original objects and 400 photographs from over 20 institutions and museums around the world.
Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. is the most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the history of Auschwitz and its role in the Holocaust ever presented in North America, and an unparalleled opportunity to confront the singular face of human evil—one that arose not long ago and not far away.
A set of black-and-white striped pajamas, once worn by a faceless person at Auschwitz. ©Mark D Phillips
Timed tickets are available online at https://mjhnyc.org/purchase-tickets/. The museum offers FREE admission to Holocaust survivors, active members of the military and first responders, and NYC public school students and educators (with valid school-issued ID).