Going places: ‘Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away’ offers unexpected lessons for today

In a case of suitcases and personal objects, you realize that families packed with anticipation of being resettled; 200,000 children were immediately taken off the freight trains upon arrival Auschwitz and sent to gas chambers with their mothers. “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” at Museum of Jewish Heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Nothing puts into perspective our discomfort over the “sacrifice” we have to make because of the coronavirus than a visit to exhibit, “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” At the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. The museum is presently closed to the public but there are excellent materials on line, and hopefully the landmark exhibit, the most comprehensive Holocaust exhibition about Auschwitz ever presented in North America, which has already been extended until August 30, 2020 will open soon for New Yorkers to experience before the exhibit travels.

One of the many benefits of travel is that it affords new perspective and understanding that we can apply to our own lives, and travel through history even more so.

I compare our confinement – with telecom, internet, video links to family, friends and the world, and home delivery, with a chance to get out in fresh air for a walk or bikeride (keeping 6-foot separation) to Anne Frank’s miserable, isolated, frightening imprisonment. We are “confined” but not in hiding from soldiers, police or government officials. Our fear is of catching a virus, albeit a potentially deadly one, but not being shot on sight or sent to a death camp, never to see loved ones again.

They say this pandemic is “unimaginable” (except it wasn’t, you only had to look back at the 1918-19 Spanish flu, or January 2020 in China), but the Holocaust was indeed “unimaginable,” “incomprehensible” in its scale of human cruelty. That, I realize, was the Nazis’ secret weapon. There are so many lessons that the Auschwitz exhibit has to share, but most chilling of all in light of renewed anti-Semitism, bigotry, xenophobia, “Not long ago. Not far away.” Indeed, the most chilling realization of all: it took a mere 10 years between Hitler’s election to power and the Final Solution.

Out of 1200 artifacts, photos, video testimonies from survivors, it comes down to one: a tiny, well-worn leather child’s shoe, the sock still hanging out of it. Was it taken off in anticipation the child was just going to a shower, never to return to collect it? or was the child ferociously pulled out of the shoe and sock?

Shoes take on special significance at the “Auschwitz: Not so long ago. Not far away.”

As you first walk in, there is a single red shoe in a glass case that perversely sparks an image of the ruby slippers in “Wizard of Oz.” set against a grey-toned wall-mural sized photo of piles of shoes. Further on as you walk through the three floors of exhibits, there is the pair of hardened leather clog-looking shoes in a case with a prison uniform so rough and raw they would irritate, then infect and swell the feet, a death sentence for the hapless prisoner.

Another display case in the “Selection” section contains shiny leather boots, much like those that the prisoners would see Mengele wearing as they were forced out of the freight cars minutes after being unloaded at Auschwitz, beneath the sign that said. ‘Work Sets You Free.”

He was the doctor who selected out twin children for his medical experiments. The rest of the children – 200,000 of them – were immediately sent to the gas chamber along with their mother, aunt, sister, grandmother or friendly stranger who had accompanied them on their journey. The tiny leather shoe with the sock still in it is the only evidence this child existed at all, his life extinguished.

800,000 more Jews were immediately sent to their deaths in the gas chambers, 2000 at a time, their bodies thrown into crematoria that worked 24/7 to keep up with the industrial-scale exterminations, their ashes thrown into a river.

Out of the 1.1 million “deported” to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps, only 200,000 were “selected” not for immediate death but to become slave labor in the concentration camp. They too were immediately marched into showers, their hair shaved, their arms painfully tattooed, their bodies stripped of any dignity or humanness.

Few lived more than a month or two under the atrocious conditions – dying of starvation, disease, overwork, beatings or simply shot on the spot. Some became so infirm, they settled into their fate, and welcomed being carried by stretcher to end their daily terror and pain. Others, packed six to a wooden plank in the barracks, would wake up to find a dead person next to them.

This exhibit, which focuses down to one “tiny dot” on a map that was the largest killing camp in the Nazi’s network – makes it as personal as is possible. You walk in their shoes. But you also see the faces, the horrors, the personal objects, the testimonials of survivors, the drawings and photos, an actual freight car and an actual barracks, even so, it is still hard to comprehend.

Indeed, the incomprehensibility of the horror was key to its success – along with secrecy and deception. People could not imagine the level of brutality, cruelty, savageness. So they packed up what they could in suitcases expecting to be resettled to places free of anti-Semitism, where they could work and live out their lives. Several resisters gave their lives to smuggle the truth out in the hopes of getting help from the outer world. We see their stories, too.

“Auschwitz” isn’t just a look back with graphic evidence to plant a marker in the history books that others are working so hard to erase. It is a look at now, a look at where the trajectory of dehumanization and bigotry can lead. That is what is embodied in the phrase. “Never Again.”

Produced by the international exhibition firm Musealia and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, the groundbreaking exhibition is the largest ever on Auschwitz with more than 700 original objects and 400 photographs from more than 20 international museums and institutions, on view for the first time in North America.

(See more extensive coverage and photos: Groundbreaking Exhibit at Museum of Jewish Heritage Transports to ‘Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away’ http:// bit.ly/2v12act)

Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Place, New York City, 646-437-4202, mjhnyc.org.
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