Maybe it was because I was a history major and my love for the Jewish community has always been strong.
From the very beginning of our visit last week to the new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park —“Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.”— I found myself totally immersed with how a small town in south central Poland came to be infamous by mention. After all, one is greeted at the front of the museum by a German Model 2 freight car in which 125 Jewish victims were transported to Auschwitz likely from a variety of locations.
The exhibit has drawn an average of 1,200 visitors daily since it opened May 8, according to museum officials. They also said that 5,000 students — from both Jewish and other schools — have already visited, with a goal of 50,000 by the time the exhibit closes on Jan. 3, 2020.
What attendees will find, thanks to Musealia, a Spanish-based global producer of large-scale historical exhibitions involving over 30 museums and collections, is a complete presentation that traces Jewish culture in Europe that was built over 1,000 years ago before being destroyed, along with six million Jews, between 1933-45.
Most psychologists would say that all people are “intrinsically worthwhile.” The Nazis, however, deleted the Jews from that equation, rating them on the level of “schmattas,” or rags, only good for slave labor until they died of exhaustion. Others, not even worthy of that, were shot or gassed.
This exhibit, which took my wife and I well over two hours to walk through, contains 700 original objects and 400 photographs, most never before seen in the United States. It also tracks the step-by-step process in which the Nazis denigrated European Jews, with Auschwitz, where a million Jews were tortured, starved, and murdered, as its centerpiece.
The exhibit begins with the Jewish Haskalah, or Enlightenment, in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and follows the Jews through various European lands where, despite latent anti-Semitism, they made their mark, and then to Germany, where they made up 1 percent of the population in 1933.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, German Jews quickly became non-citizens and had their basic rights stripped away, were impoverished, and pushed from German society. The synagogue became the community’s lone spot where individuals felt safe. That ended with Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938; more unspeakable terror was to come.
As we lingered over Heinrich Himmler’s annotated version of “Mein Kampf” — Adolf Hitler’s manifesto — along with a Torah saved from the Bornplatz Synagogue in Hamburg, Germany, we are reminded of Germany’s invasion of Poland Sept. 1, 1939; the 1940 establishment of Auschwitz as a concentration camp for political opponents; and the Wannsee Conference on Jan. 20, 1942, during which high-ranking Nazi officials planned the destruction of European Jewry.
Auschwitz became the main operations center for the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” A scale model of Auschwitz I, the original camp, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), where the prisoners tried to hang onto shreds of dignity in the shadow of the gas chambers, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz, where German companies utilized slave labor, shows the vastness of the complex.
The exhibit presents a truly eye-opening photographic record of cruelty. Following a harrowing trip on a 55-car freight train, Jews are abused and humiliated during a selection process — stripped naked of all dignity, they are either sent directly to the gas chambers or forced into slave labor, in which many will die of exhaustion.
Among the exhibits are a child’s shoe, with a sock. The boy was told, after a “shower,” that his shoes would be waiting for him. The shower, of course, was Zyklon B gas, and his body was cremated after his death.
Quite poignant are four blurred photographs thought to be taken in August 1944, by a Greek-Jewish naval officer named Alberto Errera, who was a member of the Sonderkommandos, a unit of prisoners forced to clean the gas chambers and remove the bodies for cremation. Two pictures shot through the black frame of a gas chamber’s doorway or window show the cremation of corpses in a fire pit, and another shows a group of naked women just before they are to be gassed. The fourth is of female prisoners undressing in the woods shortly after arriving in Auschwitz. The photos were smuggled out of the camp by Polish resistance fighters, and Errera died after taking part in the Sonderkommando revolt that destroyed one of the crematoriums in October 1944.
Another portion of the exhibit that was particularly moving for me was part of a men’s barracks. Four grown men slept on a wooden plank; each was allowed one meter of space. Also striking is a huge cauldron in which “soup,” water with a turnip or two, was prepared and stirred with a large wooden spoon, also on display. I was struck by how the prisoners were forced to put effort into preparing something that served little nutritional purpose.
The exhibit, on three floors, closes with liberation, Soviet forces having entered Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, but not before the Nazis evacuated most prisoners on a death march.
Many survivors found secure homes in Israel and the United States, and European Jewry is still attempting to rebuild what remains of their former communities. Most is lost forever.