A major new exhibit about the historic crime and tragedy that was the Auschwitz concentration camp is coming to the Museum of Jewish Heritage this spring. Titled, “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away,” the presentation will include artifacts such a freight rail car that was used to transport victims to the industrialized killing center in southern Poland.
With a May 8 opening timed to coincide with the 74th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, which marked the end of the war against Nazi Germany (and came just 101 days after Auschwitz was liberated by advancing Allied troops), the exhibit will feature more than 700 original objects and 400 photographs.
This will include a heartbreaking array of many hundreds of personal items — such as suitcases, eyeglasses, and shoes — that belonged to prisoners of this, the largest of the several such facilities built by the Nazis, primarily to exploit slave labor and conduct mass murder. Also part of the collection are morbid curios, such as the desk from which Auschwitz commandant Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss presided over genocide, and gas masks worn by SS personnel as they dropped crystalized pellets of cyanide into the gas chambers.
One of the most evocative and melancholy attestations to the mechanized sadism of the Holocaust will be the Model 2 “cattle car” that was used to transport victims to concentration camps. Logistics were a central priority for the army of bureaucrats who conspired to implement Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” so much so that contemporary estimates for the total number of people killed in Third Reich concentration camps are still based, in large measure, on the meticulous shipping records maintained by German railroad administrators.
And the freight car itself is a sobering reminder of the inhumanity that was harnessed to the organizational imperatives of slaughter: By the depraved standards of the SS overseers who operated the continent-wide network of ghettos and killing centers, each windowless car had sufficient space for 50 people. In practice, more than 100 prisoners were often packed into each wagon with no food or water or sanitary facilities, which meant that everyone inside was forced to stand continually for the duration of a journey that took (on average) four days. By the time these “death trains” arrived at a facility like Auschwitz, it was typical for one-fifth of everybody onboard to have died already — with this total soaring past 80 percent for trips that sometimes took longer than a week.
The Model 2 freight car that will be on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is so bulky that it will be transported by barge along the Hudson River, then hoisted over the Esplanade and rolled to the front of the building.
“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away,” is coming to New York after a critically acclaimed showing in Spain, at Madrid’s Arte Canal Exhibition Centre, where it drew more than 600,000 visitors, and was one of the most visited showings in Europe during 2018. But the version on display here will incorporate unique materials from the the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s own collection, which document the experience of Auschwitz survivors and liberators who came to live in the greater New York area. These include a sketchbook by artist Alfred Kantor, who secretly sketched more than 100 drawings and paintings depicting life within Auschwitz while he was imprisoned there, as well as the trumpet that musician Louis Bannet (acclaimed as “the Dutch Louis Armstrong”) credits for saving his life while he was an inmate.
“As the title of the exhibit suggests, Auschwitz is not ancient history but living memory, warning us to be vigilant, haunting us with the admonition ‘Never Again,'” reflects Bruce Ratner, chairman of the Museum’s board of trustees. “It is a prod to look around the world and mark the ongoing atrocities against vulnerable people. While we had all hoped after the Holocaust that the international community would come together to stop genocide, mass murder, and ethnic cleansing, these crimes continue. And there are more refugees today than at any time since the Second World War. So my hope for this exhibit is that it motivates all of us to make the connections between the world of the past and the world of the present, and to take a firm stand against hate, bigotry, ethnic violence, religious
intolerance, and nationalist brutality of all kinds.”
The coming of the “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” marks a continuing renaissance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which mostly recently drew critical acclaim (and capacity crowds) for hosting the Yiddish-language version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the exhibit, “Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial Of Adolf Eichmann,” which recalled the capture of trial of one of the leading perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Tickets for “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away,” are now available for advanced purchase. For more information, please browse: mjhnyc.org/visitor-information/purchase-tickets/
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