Several weeks ago, the Adath Israel Men’s Club sponsored a trip to see the exhibit “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York. The exhibit was originally scheduled to close in December, but has been extended through August. It’s a powerful way to approach the Holocaust, especially for those who are not able to travel to Europe, since the museum presents a number of artifacts on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.
One of the challenges of the exhibit is balancing somewhat conflicting objectives. On the one hand, the focus is on Auschwitz itself, but while that concentration camp has come to symbolize the entire Holocaust, it is only one element of an enormous story. In order to properly focus on the particulars of Auschwitz, the exhibit must zoom out and give the context of Jewish life in Europe before the war and the whole history of Nazi genocide during the war.
One way the exhibit accomplishes these goals is by telling the story with small, but poignant details: a single child’s shoe with its sock still tucked inside, a blouse maid by one woman for her sister. These objects haunt us with all of the possibilities that lie behind them. In some cases we know what happened to the owners, but often we are left to guess.
Another approach of the exhibit is to use juxtaposition to create a sense of disorientation in the viewer. In one section commercial posters of smiling German Aryans enjoying cars are displayed next to political posters with stereotypes of Jews. The style in each type of poster is similar; perhaps the same artist made both kinds, which helps us understand that Nazi propaganda infused all elements of German life.
In another section there are two displays of photographs on walls next to each other: one showing smiling SS officers having fun near Auschwitz, and the other showing Jews going about their lives before the war. These latter photos were found in the concentration camp years later and presumably belong to those who were murdered. Placing these two sets of pictures next to each other reinforces the jarring disconnect in human nature. How could the Nazi guards lead normal lives as they systematically murdered thousands of Jews each and every day?
“Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” confronts us with many questions that have no easy answers. In a time of increased anti-Semitism, is also challenges us to think about how bigotry and stereotypes persist even in the most civilized of societies. I hope that as many people as possible, especially non-Jews, are able to see the exhibit and be inspired to fight against hatred in our own day.