The wheels on a train that took people to Auschwitz sit in a dark room, looking as though the slightest touch could send them into motion. The metal wheels signal the entrance of a macabre exhibit and act as an ominous warning. The viewer must prepare themselves to see harrowing objects, ranging from barracks in which prisoners lived to the shoes of murdered children. The Jewish Museum of Heritage features these artifacts in its exhibit “Auschwitz: Not Far Away, Not Long Ago,” and the Museum is only a subway ride away from school.
The Museum’s chair Bruce C. Ratner, also a developer and philanthropist, told The New York Times that the Museum highlights the need to take a stance against anti-Semitism. “My interest and that of the Board is how the Holocaust applies today.”
Furthermore, although the Registry of Holocaust Survivors contains the names of over 195,000 survivors, many of the people listed are since deceased. The exhibit ensures that the survivors’ stories will exist after they are gone.
The exhibit narrates the Holocaust in chronological order, occupying three floors of the museum. The first floor tells the beginnings of persecution in Europe, the second features the start of concentration camps and attempts to convey what life was like for prisoners there, and the third floor focuses on prisoners’ deaths and the Holocaust’s implications for the future.
The artifacts, however, are what set this exhibit apart from other Holocaust exhibits. The viewer gains a new perspective on prisoners’ lives on a personal level. It provides an intimate view of prisoners’ plight and fosters a direct connection between the prisoners and the audience. This exhibit is unique because it draws a connection between the past and the present in its artifacts.
At the beginning of the exhibit, a viewer enters the dark, cold, and high-ceilinged room. It is completely silent, except for the sound of a solemn, solitary oboe, causing immediate discomfort. There are no windows in the exhibit; there is nowhere for the eyes to seek reprieve from the horror. In the second room, there is a wheel used on the cattle cars to carry people to Auschwitz; over 100 people would be forced to cram in one car.
The use of the artifacts encourages the message “Not Far Away, Not Long Ago.” “It feels more real now than in the past,” visitor Kyle Onick of Texas said.
Visitor Adam Dewalle, a seventh-grade student who attends school in New York City, spent a few days learning about the Holocaust in school but gained a new perspective from the exhibit. “You get to really see a first account of what happened and evidence of how it happened.”
The artifacts counteract the Nazi’s dehumanization of the prisoners, which they accomplished by mental, physical, and psychological abuse. The dehumanization was manifested in tattooing of the prisoners, shaving of their heads, separation of all family ties, and daily mass killings, among other tactics. A quotation on the wall of the second floor by Auschwitz survivor Sonia Landau in 1946 reads, “With every drop of the [tattoo] needle, a piece of my life dropped away.”
The museum displayed stories of individual families, providing the audience a glance into the prisoners’ lives before the Nazis viciously ripped them away. For example, a glass case holds many ragged leather briefcases and prominently features the briefcase of Kurt Stein, which lays above the rest. The briefcase has Stein’s name on it; the accompanying placard tells of his life as a doctor before the war, and of his tragic death right after his arrival at Auschwitz. These stories attempt to restore pieces of the victims’ humanity that the Nazis were determined to erase.
Some stories are so personal that they seem as though they were never meant to be told, but rather to remain a treasured family story or secret kept between loved ones. Engagement rings are not meant to be displayed in museums, but to be worn and treasured by the person who was given it. The ring of Zdenka Fantlová rests in a glass case on a wall, representing a promise to her fiancé, Arnošt Levit. At Auschwitz, Fantlová slipped the ring under her tongue, risking a beating, and even death, according to its placard. She did not have the opportunity to marry Levit, as he did not survive the camp, suffering the same fate as the rest of her family.
For visitor Arielle Averboukh of New Jersey, the scariest artifact of the exhibit was the worn-down shoe of a baby, displayed unnaturally in a glass case. “It doesn’t matter their age or where they were from – they were all killed,” she said.
Former Auschwitz SS member Oskar Gröning said in a 2004 interview, “The children, they’re not the enemy at the moment. The enemy is the blood inside them.” This harrowing quotation hangs on the walls, next to quotations of victims.
The museum often juxtaposes the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the victims. On the third floor, there is a wall that displays photos of the Nazis at Auschwitz in “The World of the Perpetrators.” They smile, often, arms around each other, despite the atrocities that they committed. Visitor Alex Hall of New York, the Chief of Staff of a political organization, said he was particularly disgusted by the Nazis’ political organization and meticulous plans of the genocide. Detailed maps of the camps and other records of the Nazis line the walls as well.
The wall right next to “The World of the Perpetrators” is called “The Lost World of the Victims,” which shows the victims’ family photos of their lives before Auschwitz. There are gleeful wedding days and births, children playing in the street, people in front of their workplaces, and grinning portraits. In the same room is a model of the doors that were used to restrain the prisoners as the Nazis released Zyklon B, a gas that would kill all the people in the room within 15 minutes.
The juxtaposition of the two groups emphasizes the cruelty of the crimes that the Nazis committed, but also, suggests that somehow, these people share a common humanity that the Nazis strayed far from. Thus, the exhibit connects the prisoners to their torturers, as well as the viewer, who are all fundamentally human.
The viewer will remember the feelings of grappling with these concepts, even if they do not remember the facts that they have learned. The exhibit’s audio guide asks the viewer a question that they can seek, but never know: “How did people like you and me create such a place?”