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For the Lessons in Humanity We All So Desperately Need to Learn: “Museum of Jewish Heritage”

I have always wanted to go to Auschwitz. I normally get a lot of looks when I say this out loud. But it is true. I have always wanted to see for myself where a large part of the atrocities of the Holocaust took place. 

I think part of the reason is that I want to wrap my head around the facts I already know. Perhaps it is because I want a deeper understanding of the ability of pain one human is able to inflict on another. I think this is part of the reason I am a fan of true crime stories. I know for a fact it is the reason I studied Sociology in college. 

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, recently opened a brand new exhibit entitled “Auschwitz Not Long Away, Not Far Away”. The collection is slated as the largest ever displayed in North America. There are over seven hundred artifacts with about four hundred photographs and drawings. The collection has been compiled from over twenty museums around the world with the most powerful objects coming from Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum itself. Since I have not been there, this exhibit for me was the first step in my journey. 

The exhibit starts as soon as you approach the museum. Outside of the doors is a freight car. When I saw it I took a deep breathe and paused for a moment. The full reality of what I was about to experience was upon me. But I was ready and dare I even say excited about. I was honored to learn and bear witness to the stories that need to be told, even if only the way is through the objects left behind by those lives lost. 

At first I thought that the freight car was a replica because I thought it would be too valuable to leave outdoors. But it is real. It is a Deutsche Reichsbahn (German National Railway) railway car. Between 1910 and 1917 there were about one hundred and twenty thousand built, this being one of them. Their original purpose was to transport cattle and other goods but ultimately ended up bringing many to their deaths. While it may seem large empty, each car carried upwards of eighty people and their belongings on a journey that lasted days without food or water and with only a bucket to share as a bathroom. 

Those same freight cars would return to Germany but this time carrying the clothes, jewelry, art, money, and other items thought to be of some value - even the gold teeth taken from those murdered at Auschwitz. Most Jews thought they were simply being relocated so they dressed in their nicest clothes and packed their valuables. That is just one of the most heart breaking facts. Inside I would see a pram stroller that a mother had taken with her. Apparently she thought she would have a place to walk around with her baby. It is doubtful they made it past the guards once stepping off the train. 

During my visit to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC I had the opportunity to walk through one such railway car and each time I did (yes I went through more than once) I couldn’t fathom what it must have been like to have even had to survive that. 

The Museum of Jewish Heritage opened in 1997 and though I had never been before, I still didn’t see any of their other exhibits. The Auschwitz exhibit is three floors and I spent almost three hours exploring them. Normally I am not a person that needs to read or look at everything presented. But here, the way the information is presented and laid out you find yourself interested in everything. The audio guide was really well done. When you entered each of the twenty sections it would give you a brief summary of what there was to see and each item had a number next to it. Then you got to choose what you wanted to listen to and learn about in the order you wanted. I want to say upfront that this is one of the best exhibits and audio guides I have ever experienced, no matter the topic. It was also one of the most informative. I know that I would easily go back and find something I overlooked. 

I want to point out how great this exhibit was, because as a person that is fairly knowledgable about the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular, I can’t believe how much I learned from the morning I spent here. 

For starters, I had no idea that it was the survivors of the camp who in 1947, championed the Polish Parliament to have the sites (Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau) turned into a museum for preservation, education, and in memory of those who died there. I am in awe of their bravery.

I also have to admit that I didn’t know that Auschwitz itself was the name of a town in Poland, not just the name of the camp. The barracks were already in place because it was the former site of a military base. 

The story of how the hell on Earth that was Auschwitz came to be starts at the very beginning, at the end of World War I. I learned how Poland was divided up and how Jews were blamed for the penalties Germany suffered after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. When people are desperate and angry, and a manipulating, evil person comes to power, horror ensues. I always thought that if the Nazi party with all their strengths such as: advances in technology, organization, transportation, and overall efficiency, had used their efforts for good instead of evil, what a different world we would be living in today. 

Another part of the exhibit I enjoyed was that there was exploration of the Jewish culture and traditions. I am not of Jewish ancestry, but I liked seeing those artifacts that celebrated their faith. Even in the worst of times, many gathered to pray at the camps as well. That anyone still believed in God after such atrocities like this also blows my mind. 

During my visit, I found myself on more than one occasion muttering “motherf-ckers” under my breath. I couldn’t help myself. Not that I tried. 

The three examples that come rushing to mind are these. 

One: I almost ignored it but in a glass case was a document, a book really, opened half way. It was the audio guide’s words that made me take a closer look. The document was from 1551 when Ferdinand I decreed that all Jews were to wear a yellow circle on their clothing (another thing I learned was how the hatred of Jews didn’t begin in Germany). It was on exhibit because in 1940 it was presented to Hermann Goring as a birthday present from the führer himself. 

Two: Some of the most disturbing items on exhibit were not the ones you would think of. Sure seeing the shoes and suitcases left behind are awful. So too is the remnants of the barracks and barbed wire. But what really made me ill was seeing the contrasting life the SS officers were living. After a day of torture and murder, they went home and had a happy family life. I know this because I saw photographic proof of Rudolf Höss’s life. 

Three: When it came time to approach the relics left from the gas chambers (what remains despite the Nazis attempt to burn and destroy the evidence of what they had done) you come upon a rare sight. There was a fake shower head (authentically from Auschwitz) that was placed in the gas chambers to convince those sentenced to death that they were only going to be showered, after of course having been stripped of all clothing and having their heads shaved. 

Again I say: motherf-ckers. 

In this same area there was replicas, one of the wire mesh used to lower Zyklon B into the gas chambers, where no one could reach it. This pesticide killed within fifteen minutes of being placed. The other was replica was of the gas chamber doors. When the Nazis realized the Allied Forces were approaching they tried to destroy all evidence of the camps and how blown up the gas chambers. However, that was the one part they failed at. 

A brave man named Alberto Errera, who was forced to work in the gas chambers, removing and burning bodies of his fellow Jews, risked his life and took photographs of the murders in hopes that he would get to share it with the world. They are hanging in this exhibit and the world will now get to see them. 

I go could on and on about what I learned, what I saw, but really it will never do the exhibit justice. The story and artifacts need to be seen in their entirety. It has been over a week since my visit and I am still processing all of it. 

In an odd twist of fate, the day after my visit I watched a documentary on sex therapist Dr. Ruth. I had no idea she was, as she said: “an orphan of the Holocaust” because her parents were killed after they sent her on a kinder-transport to Switzerland. What was even more ironic was that her ninetieth birthday party was held here, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, almost a year to the day of my visit. Talk about serendipity. 

This powerful and educational exhibit was first displayed in Madrid, Spain. It will stay at its home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage until January 3, 2020. Then will be move on. Be sure that you get to see it. 

I know that for many the idea of seeing an exhibit about such an emotional subject can be a non-starter but I urge you to reconsider. There is much light, love, and strength in the stories told here and above all I believe that looking at the horrors of the past is the only way to change our future.  A future that has been stopped in its tracks after the 2016 election. But with a presidential election right in front of us once again, it is important that we cherish our democracy and vote appropriately. 

As Holocaust survivor Primo Levi said: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.”

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