The old German train car parked on the railroad tracks outside gives you pause, a pause dearly needed before you step inside the museum.
We saw the special exhibit, “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City just two days after it opened May 8.
From the museum, you can see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, that great promise of hope. Inside the museum, you see hope’s opposite.
The smallest items leave a huge hole in your heart: A child’s tea set. A prayer shawl. A single baby shoe. A lover’s ring. A pair of eyeglasses. A wicker basket. A sock tucked in a shoe. All signs of life.
Then you see the signs of hate and fear: Anti-Semitic laws and proclamations. Articles about boycotts and book burnings. Yellow star patches. An SS belt buckle. A Hitler youth bugle. An officer’s helmet. A blue and white-striped uniform. A metal examination table used to experiment on humans. A giant soup cauldron. Barbed wire. Concrete posts. An SS dagger.
And finally, signs of death: A final letter tossed from a train. A Zyklon-B gas pellet tin. A fake shower head. A gas mask. A crematorium poker. A rake used to sweep up ashes.
Faces plead from the wall, final photos, a catalog of mug shots, terror frozen in black-and-white, the innocent before they became corpses. Just a few of the 1.1 million killed at Auschwitz, most of them simply for being Jewish. The exhibit tells the story of Auschwitz and the history of Oswiecim, the small town in Poland where the camps turned entire families into ashes. It offered chilling facts: “By the end of the war 90% of Jewish children in occupied Europe had been murdered.”
The architectural drawings of the camps haunt you long after you leave. The Germans thought of everything, down to how to design a trench next to a hillside with the precise angle needed to shoot a person so the body would fall effortlessly into the trench.
Mass murder takes a lot of planning. And a lot of cooperation.
It’s hard to fathom the deliberate design of it all, the care that architects and artists took to draw and design every angle and aspect of the Final Solution, and yet, here are their drawings, and the photos of all those ordinary Germans who chose to take part in it, smiling as they Heil Hitler away.
The exhibit drives home the history of the Holocaust, how propaganda fuels a hate that becomes sanctioned, institutionalized and unstoppable. But that hate didn’t start with extermination camps, it started with a push, a shove, a nasty comment, a boycott, a law, and on and on.
I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau a few years ago. If you can go there, do so. If you can’t, come here. As the brochure says, “it’s the most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the history of Auschwitz and its role in the Holocaust ever presented in North America.” Most of the 400 photos and 700 objects are from Auschwitz; the rest are from more than 20 different museums, survivors and other institutions around the world.
In the two hours we spent in the museum, no one spoke. The lady next to me wiped her glasses. Tears were blurring the exhibits.
I went with my husband, who, like most Jews in America, grew up learning about the Holocaust. Like most Gentiles, I learned little about it until later in life.
This exhibit isn’t just a history lesson. It’s a warning. As Holocaust survivor Primo Levi said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again.”
The museum offers 1,100 reasons to go. Here are a few more. These figures cited in The New York Times came from a 2018 survey conducted by Schoen Consulting:
“Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41% of millennials, believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust.”
“Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66% of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was.”
The problem isn’t just Holocaust denial. It’s Holocaust ignorance.
We can all do our part to stamp it out.
Urge your friends and family to see this exhibit, which is open until Jan. 3, 2020. Encourage them to see the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Or visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Yad Vashem in Israel or to go to Poland and stand at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Don’t let them forget about the Holocaust.
Or worse, never know.