February 24, 2020

The Perfidy of Evil

The railway track leading to the infamous “death gate” at the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on Nov. 13, 2014. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

When I went to see the groundbreaking exhibition “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, Orthodox Jews were being attacked in Brooklyn on a near-daily basis; an imam who has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction gave a Ramadan prayer in Congress; a church in Chicago invited Louis Farrakhan to speak about “Satanic Jews”; and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) asserted that the real victims of the Holocaust were Palestinian Arabs who lost their “dignity” in creating a “safe haven” for Jews. 

“Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” never seemed so apt.

But quite unexpectedly, the exhibition — as dark and intense as you could imagine — also offered a ray of hope. Showing more than 700 artifacts, it was conceived by Luis Ferreiro, a non-Jewish Spaniard, after reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Ferreiro, who runs the global producer of exhibitions Musealia, approached the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum with the idea of creating the first-ever traveling exhibition about the Holocaust. The result: a nearly two-year stay in Madrid, with two extensions, drawing 600,000 visitors, the largest in Europe last year.

A windowless boxcar greets you when you arrive at the museum in New York. During the Holocaust, roughly 150 people, mostly Jews, were crammed into one like it, taking them on an often four-day hellish trip to the death camp, where the sign “Work Sets You Free” welcomed them with the perfidy only evil can master. 

The exhibition focuses on Auschwitz because between 1942 and 1944 it became the largest Nazi death factory — the largest documented mass murder site in human history. “Auschwitz and the Shoah are not just another single, dramatic event in the linear history of humanity. It is a critical point in the history of Europe and perhaps the world,” said Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz museum.   

The exhibition does a magnificent job detailing the buildup to humanity’s darkest chapter. Facts are stated as facts, indisputable, unable to be twisted into precisely the type of propaganda that led to the murder of 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, 1 million of whom were Jews, including more than 200,000 children.

The “Auschwitz” exhibition does a magnificent job 

detailing the buildup to humanity’s 

darkest chapter.

The artifacts are wrenching: a whip used to beat prisoners; a section of barracks; concrete pillars entwined with barbed wire; a metal peephole to the gas chambers; a poker used to manage the fires in the crematoria, which burned 4,416 corpses per day. 

Quotes, either on the walls or in short films, are equally jarring: “Once the Zyklon B was poured in, it rose from the ground upwards. And in the terrible struggle that followed, the strongest people tried to climb higher. It was instinctive, a death struggle. Which is why children and weaker people, and the aged, always wound up at the bottom. … Because in the death struggle, a father didn’t realize that his son lay beneath him.”

An exhaustively researched and illustrated catalog by Abbeville Press accompanies the exhibition. With both anti-Semitic attacks and Holocaust denial/revisionism at an all-time high, when two-thirds of millennials don’t even know what the Holocaust is, the book deserves a place in every home. The exhibition is in New York till January and then will travel for seven years, though the cities have yet to be named. The New York museum plans to bring in 100,000 schoolchildren. Colleges would do the world a big favor by making trips to the exhibition mandatory.

The book makes a point of discussing assimilationist Jews — Jews who dealt with rising anti-Semitism by putting their status in German society above their Jewish identity. “To the Germans,” write the authors, “[their] dissociation from Judaism did not matter. The only thing that counted was their descent — and it would bring [them] to Auschwitz.”

Have we really come full circle? “The words of hatred create hatred. The words of dehumanization dehumanize. The words of menace increase the threat,” Cywinski writes.   

I took a deep breath, looked toward the Statue of Liberty less than 2 miles away, and walked into the brilliant sunshine hearing the words of the resistance fighter Róza Robota before her execution in 1945: “Hazak v’ematz.” Be strong and brave. We need to confront every lie; uproot hatred through education. Silence is simply not an option.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.