A child’s shoe with a sock neatly tucked inside by its owner. Battered suitcases in a glass case. Letters addressed to loved ones, thrown out of cattle car windows by victims headed for concentration camps. A prisoner’s tallit katan.
These objects are among hundreds of artifacts and photographs from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland that are part of an exhibition that opens May 8 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.”
The exhibition’s opening date marks the anniversary of VE Day, Germany’s surrender to the Allies at the end of World War II in Europe. Opening 74 years after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in January 1945, the exhibition is dedicated to the historical significance of the camp, and the memory of the 1.1 million victims who perished there.
Before Auschwitz became synonymous with the Holocaust, a place where one million Jews and tens of thousands of others the Nazis deemed inferior were murdered, it was a Polish town called Oswiecim. The largest of the Nazi camps, Auschwitz was not a single camp, but a vast complex of three main camps and 50 subcamps that functioned as a concentration and death camp.
The exhibition, which runs through January 2020, features over 700 original objects and 400 photographs from over 20 institutions and museums, including artifacts from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland that have never been seen before in the U.S. These include personal items of victims; an original wooden barrack from Auschwitz III-Monovitz; part of the electrified fence; the desk of Auschwitz Commandent Rudolph Höss; and an SS gas mask and metal tin for Zyklon-B.
A collaboration between the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and Spanish exhibition firm Musealia, the New York exhibition was curated by an international team of scholars led by Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt. It traces the development of Nazi ideology and explores the camp’s dual identity, both as the largest mass murder site in history and the ultimate manifestation of human bigotry and violence.
Director of Musealia Luis Ferreiro says he was inspired to develop an exhibition about the history of Auschwitz and its impact in 2009, after reading Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Having grown up working for his family’s company, Musealia, says Ferreiro, “I wanted to share that knowledge in the shape of an exhibition with as many people as possible.” The Auschwitz exhibit was first shown in Madrid in 2017.
Auschwitz did not happen in one day. The exhibit contextualizes how nineteenth-century racist ideology, and political and economic upheaval in Germany after World War I, preceded the rise of Nazism and the “Final Solution” to annihilate European Jewry. Auschwitz became central to this process. A page from the minutes of the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Berlin showing the number of Jews targeted for extermination in each European country, a map of the deportation routes to Auschwitz from across Europe, and a plaster replica of the camp show the scale of the Nazi’s industrial killing machine.
“This exhibition holds not only the history of the Holocaust and the origins of Nazi Germany, but describes the darkest moment in our history. At a time when anti-Semitism and hate and bigotry directed at Jews and so many other racial, religious and other groups should have been long past, we find we must be vigilant in every kind of way. We need to redouble our efforts to educate, particularly young people, about the Holocaust,” says Bruce Ratner, MJH Board Chairman.
One chilling section in the exhibition contrasts photos compiled by SS officers with those of victims. Blurry photographs of bodies being burned are shown, taken by sonderkommandos at great personal risk. Another set of photos shows the selection at Auschwitz of a transport of Hungarian Jews. Women with children and the elderly waiting to be gassed sit in a grove near the crematorium, unaware of their impending fate. Other photos show senior SS officers and female staff singing and enjoying themselves at a lakeside retreat a half-hour drive from the camp. On an adjacent wall are prewar photos victims brought with them, of graduations, marriages, celebrations — evidence of lives destroyed. Says Jan van Pelt: “We certainly wanted to put those three collections together, and of course it is a very emotionally charged point.”
A tallit katan that belonged to survivor Mendel Landau, from the Amud Aish Museum, holds a special place of honor, Jan van Pelt says: “After Mendel Landau, a Hasidic Jew from Oswiecim, arrived in Auschwitz, he was stripped and tattooed — basically the Nazis aimed to make him into a number, to take away his identity, to make him forget who he was. When in 1944 a transport of Hungarian Jews arrived, he noticed that a man not stripped of his clothing yet was wearing this tallit katan and Mendel Landau asked this man if he could borrow the garment so he could say his prayers. The man gave his garment to Mendel and an SS guard noticed him doing his prayers wearing it, and beat him almost to death. The guard took the tallit and threw it into the barbed wire. Mendel retrieved the tallit, determined to return it to his owner, and the owner didn’t want to have it anymore, seeing the incredible risk. So Mendel kept the tallit and brought it on the death march, and ultimately to New York.”
Mendel Landau’s grandson, “came to the exhibition and before he had seen the artifact he told me how much he appreciated that we had shown it, and before Shabbat he sent me the most wonderful email to express his gratitude and admiration for the way we displayed it and told the story of his grandfather.”
Van Pelt hopes the exhibition will inspire people to dig into their closets, where important artifacts like Mendel Landau’s tallit katan could further add to our knowledge of the Holocaust.
The tallit katan also speaks to the remarkable survival of the Jewish people for over 2,000 years, he says, “thanks to people like Mendel Landau in following the commandments to enact their devotions in difficult circumstances like Auschwitz.”
“Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not far away” will run through January 2020 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, New York. Tickets available at Auschwitz.nyc.