David Olère’s drawing of “Crematorium 3” (1945). The Polish-born French-Jewish artist  David Olère was deported to Auschwitz in February 1943. He survived selection and was put to work as a Sonderkommando (Special Squad), the unit of prisoners forced to empty the gas chambers and burn the bodies. Olère survived and provided testimony after the war through his drawings. 

This is a work-in-progress first presented to the working group “In Memorium: Public Spaces of Performance, Remembrance, Trauma, and Mourning,” at the 2019 ASTR Conference (American Society for Theatre Research)

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I. Introduction

In “An Auschwitz Exhibition Fails the Jews,” Edward Rothstein, the Wall Street Journal’s critic at large, takes issue with an epigraph that opens a new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” The epigraph that troubles him, along with many aspects of the exhibition, is a statement by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” Rothstein counters that the Holocaust is an event “scarred by singularity—the attempt to eradicate a people that numbered in the millions, living in more than a dozen countries in the world’s most politically sophisticated continent, who were executed with meticulous, obsessive brutality in the midst of a world war.” He rightly observes that even after three quarters of a century, the Holocaust “still stymies efforts at understanding.”

Yet those long seventy-five years are arguably central to the challenges of transmitting cultural knowledge about the Holocaust. Those challenges are also explicit in the full name of the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. The conjunction of living and memorial implies a need to refigure the Holocaust—to reframe the relationship between the Holocaust and its audiences so as to preserve its atrocities as tangible and meaningful. Most survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi death camps have since died, along with those who tortured and murdered them, and those who witnessed their slaughter. Not far into the future, remaining survivors will not be around to share their live testimony and embodied memories of what happened. Even the physical artifacts displayed in New York (on loan from Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum) will likely deteriorate over time.

Some people willfully deny the Holocaust. More fundamentally, though, vast numbers of Americans simply don’t know this history. According to the Washington Post, two thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. Meanwhile, a 2018 study published in the New York Times revealed that “41% of American adults did not know what Auschwitz was.” During my May 2019 visit to the Auschwitz exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I followed a tour guide leading a group of high school students. Early on, he asked them when and where World War II began. None of the students answered these questions correctly. Only one or two had heard of Auschwitz before. If, as Rothstein claims, the Holocaust “stymies understanding,” this is partly because large numbers of Americans perceive it as a foreign past that does not pertain to us. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes evoke the horrors of Nazi rule to shame each other. In June 2019, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez described American detention facilities on the southern border as “concentration camps.” Lyn Cheney’s stern rebuke via Twitter implied that both concentration camps and Auschwitz are taboo subjects—off-limits for any comparison with contemporary America. The National Holocaust Museum also issued a statement on the dangers of “grossly oversimplified Holocaust analogies.” What, then, is the purpose of sites that position themselves as living memorials to the Holocaust? What is their role in our culture?

In 2019, the challenges of transmitting knowledge about the Holocaust are at least threefold. First, exhibits should help viewers grasp what Rothstein calls “the scarring singularity of Auschwitz,” its exceptionally brutal toll on Jews. Although members of other ethnic, political, religious, and sexual groups were persecuted and murdered, only Jews were singled out for total obliteration based on racial grounds. On display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is a quote by a former Auschwitz SS man, Oskar Gröning, who explained in a 2004 interview why he condoned the killing of Jewish children: “The children, they’re not the enemy at the moment. The enemy is the blood inside them. The enemy is the growing up to be a Jew that could become dangerous. And because of that the children were included as well.” An estimated 50,000 to 200,000 “Aryan-looking” Polish children (as well as children from Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, Belorussia, and Ukraine) were kidnapped by the Nazis for the purpose of Germanization. By contrast, Jewish children were never deemed “racially valuable.” An estimated 1.5 million children were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, nearly all of them Jewish.

Second, today’s exhibits must acknowledge the profound losses suffered by Poles. Hitler didn’t just wage war against Poland: he aimed to wipe the country off the map and re-populate it with Germans. Hitler’s speech to his generals in August 1939 instructed German soldiers how to treat Polish civilians: “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language.” SS leader Henrich Himmler also stressed an unnerving goal: “All Polish specialists will be exploited in our military-industrial complex. Later, all Poles will disappear from this world. It is imperative that the great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task.” A placard near the start of the Auschwitz exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Heritage states that up to 2.7 million non-Jewish Poles were murdered as a result of German war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. This was in addition to at least 3 million Jewish citizens of Poland. Given the strained yet crucial ties between Poland and Israel, accounts of how non-Jewish Poles experienced the Nazi occupation should be integral to Auschwitz exhibits. Poland’s predominantly Catholic populace often feels that Nazi efforts to destroy their nation and culture have been forgotten, downplayed, or deliberately distorted. As recently as December 2019, Russia’s Vladimir Putin tried to falsify history by claiming that Poland colluded with the West and Hitler to start World War II, outrageous claims that Poland, the United States, Israel, and Germany together disputed. Nevertheless, Israel did not invite Poland’s President Andrzej Duda to speak at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, held on 23 January 2020 at Vad Yashem in Jerusalem. President Duda expressed his bewilderment at not being allowed to address the forty-five heads of state who gathered to commemorate the Holocaust: “How is it possible that the ones who speak are the presidents of Germany, Russia, and France — whose governments back then sent people, Jews, to concentration camps — whereas the President of Poland is not allowed to speak?” Duda’s indignation is shared by many Catholic Poles, and will likely weaken their resolve to stand with Jews and combat rising anti-Semitism in Poland and elsewhere. Israel’s perceived capitulation to Russia will surely also curb some Poles’ willingness to consider existing and emerging research about Polish complicity in the persecution of Jews during and after WWII.

Third, and perhaps most important, today’s exhibits must make Auschwitz relatable to audiences who have no direct connection to this traumatic place and history. Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, chief curator of the core exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, recently delivered a lecture in Toronto titled “The Future of the Holocaust in a World Without Survivors.” That future is fast approaching. New generations of witnesses must be moved to care about Auschwitz—not just out of fear that such a horrific event could happen again, but to better understand the causes of the Holocaust and the import of the past on the present. Why were Jews targeted by the Nazi regime? What political and performative strategies did the Nazis use to influence how non-Jews perceived Jews? What can we learn from these strategies of alienation, demonization, and dehumanization—and how might such knowledge apply to our current sociopolitical moment? This balance of Jewish singularity and wider cultural relevance must be achieved in order for the Holocaust to survive our 21st century. Below, I discuss specific ways that “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” strives to perform that delicate balancing act.

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II. Whose Auschwitz? Sidestepping a Numbers-Based Approach

In 1986, my mother took my siblings and me on a summer vacation to Poland. My mother was born there in 1934, five years before Hitler invaded in September 1939. Along with Poland’s famous castles and cathedrals, she wanted us to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. My mother did not mind that we were barely teens. The barbed wire, crematoria, and grim artifacts of how prisoners lived and died at Auschwitz did not deter her. Though communist Poland was not yet open to the West, she paid with Canadian dollars to purchase English-language audio tours. I am not sure, but she might have also hired a tour guide. She wanted her children to see and understand everything: the magnitude of the evil that had happened there.

I doubt that my mother or the museum staff were deliberately reticent about Jews who perished at Auschwitz. Still, I realized years later that my introduction to the death camp was from a distinctly Polish Catholic perspective—one that said little about the devastating impact of the Holocaust on Jews. Instead, our tour emphasized Poland’s victimhood at the hands of the Nazis. We visited the underground bunker where Father Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish priest, had spent his final days consoling other doomed prisoners. In 1941, a year before Auschwitz became the lynchpin of The Final Solution, most inmates there were Polish political prisoners. When a prisoner escaped, the Nazis deterred others by selecting ten men to starve to death for the one that got away. Remarkably, Father Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a Pole chosen for death who had a wife and children. After two weeks without food or water, everyone but Kolbe died. To clear the cell, the Nazis lethally injected him with carbolic acid. The man he replaced survived the war. Pope John Paul II canonized Father Maximillian Kolbe in 1982.

Kolbe’s staggering act of martyrdom stays with me to this day. I do not recall stories of Jewish heroes, or even ordinary Jews. Perhaps I was too young to retain them. Perhaps Communist efforts to downplay the contributions and suffering of Jews throughout Polish history also played a role in my absence of memory. At the museum’s book store, I purchased one of the few books in English about the camp. Its cover featured a yellow star. In a moment that seems ludicrous now, I wondered why. After all, I’d just learned that Auschwitz was a site of immense Polish losses. A few days later, I wrote about our tour in my journal:

“We went to a place that had seen the most hideous and violent crimes against humanity possible! That place was the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the death place of over four million people during the second World War! […] Jews, Poles, Russians, Italians, Czechs, and Yugoslavians all met a terrible destruction at Auschwitz. The crimes committed there were unimaginable, and we left feeling odd and eerie.”

In retrospect, my teenage synopsis embraced the universalizing tendency that Rothstein criticizes in his review of the Auschwitz exhibit. I lumped together various ethnic and national groups murdered at the site, ignoring (or perhaps still ignorant of) the incomparable circumstances that set Jewish prisoners apart.

Rothstein primarily decries the exhibit’s opening section, which introduces key terms and contextualizes Hitler’s rise to power. Specifically, he objects to a placard claiming that the Nazi’s enemies were “first of all, trade unionists, the Social Democrats, and the Communists.” He warns that this focus “makes the Jews seem like afterthought, secondary to more fundamental political hatreds.” Rothstein also questions the museum’s early mention of the Roma death toll:

“Unusual attention […] is given to the Roma, who are, of course, part of this awful history. There were 23,000 Roma at Auschwitz; 21,000 died—half in gas chambers. But the deaths of Jews—a million at Auschwitz—were at least 50 times greater. Moreover, Roma lived in a separate camp area, kept their own clothing and stayed together as families, matters unmentioned here.”

In criticizing the exhibit, Rothstein performs his own omissions. He fails to mention that under the Nuremberg race laws issued in 1935, the Roma (or Gypsies) were “just as racially alien as the Jews, and could not enjoy the rights of the citizens of the Reich.”  He also leaves out the fact that the Roma “family camp” featured acute overcrowding, deadly contagious diseases, medical experiments, and lasted only 17 months. In 1944, the family camp was liquidated and its remaining Roma inmates were brutally murdered by the Nazis.

Significantly, the Museum of Jewish History displaces Rothstein’s preoccupation with numbers—the number of Jews who died versus the number of Roma, the number of Poles, and so on. Lisa Safier, the museum’s Director of Communications, stated that their approach to Auschwitz is rooted in individual stories and experiences: “The focus is on people,” Safier said when I spoke to her by telephone in June 2019. I took her statement to mean that the museum does not seek to prioritize certain losses over others, but rather to value and personalize (as much as possible) the experiences of all those who were forcibly sent to Auschwitz.

Departing from a numbers-based approach allows this Auschwitz exhibition to perform several key interventions. One crucial mediation is terminology. Almost immediately, viewers encounter a panel explaining the museum’s choice to use the English word Holocaust instead of Hebrew or Yiddish terms; the panel also notes the distinctive words that Poles and Roma use to describe what happened to their respective populations during World War II, under the German occupation of Poland:

“In this exhibition we use the English word Holocaust—and not the Hebrew word Shoah (utter destruction) or the Yiddish word Khurbn (destruction)—to refer to the German genocide of 6 million Jews. We note that the Roma use the term Porajmos (great devouring) when they speak of the German murder of between a quarter million and half a million Roma, while in Poland the noun Zagłada (destruction) may refer to the murders of up to 2.7 million non-Jewish Poles and 3 million Jewish Poles that resulted from German war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”

In drawing attention to the diverse terms used by several cultures forever affected by Auschwitz, this placard performs a subtle yet radical gesture: it addresses a broad Jewish diaspora while acknowledging the massive, unique losses suffered by Poles and Roma at the hands of Germans. The exhibit’s entry point recognizes peoples and nations whose losses are often overlooked, at least in North American contexts. Significantly, Holocaust also speaks to everyday Americans.

In addition to interventions at the level of language, this exhibition performs new understandings of the Holocaust through its organization and assemblage. These structural factors highlight the Jewish specificities of the Holocaust while educating visitors about the broader historical and sociopolitical contexts in which it unfolded. The exhibit comprises three distinct yet interconnected sections, and uses three floors of connected space (elevators and escalators transport viewers from one section to the next). I experienced these spatial transitions in embodied ways; there was a cumulative effect inherent in the journey up. It was at once a struggle, a painful and troubling ascent, and a means of elevation: a path to a clearer understanding of the impact of the Holocaust on Europe’s Jews, and on the larger world.

“Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” opens on the ground floor by acknowledging Poland’s central place in this history. Viewers learn about Oświęcim, initially described as “a dot on the map,” a small town in southern Poland that the Nazis annexed and renamed “Auschwitz” during World War II. We learn about the complexities of Oświęcim: its mix of Polish Jews and Polish Catholics. Roughly 8000 Jews lived there on the eve of World War II, comprising more than half of the town’s population. Oświęcim became an important railroad junction in the 19th century, a central reason why the Nazis found the town valuable—because mass numbers of people could be transported there by train. This section offers glimpses into Europe’s long history of anti-Semitism and how that history enabled Hitler’s rise to power. Finally, viewers learn about the Nazis’ evolving uses of Auschwitz: from a concentration camp for political enemies, to a death camp whose defining purpose was to eradicate as many Jews as possible.

The second section educates viewers about the racist and anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws passed by the Reichstag in 1935, and their impact on the civil and legal rights of German Jews. Viewers first get a sense of what “normal” life was like for middle-class German Jewish families before the Nuremberg Laws. From scenes of domestic comfort and religious freedom, we quickly shift to a world where Jews faced mounting stigmas and violence. The Nazis were skilled propagandists who used sophisticated advertising techniques and the most current technologies of their time to spread their message. Once he seized power in 1933, Hitler created a Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda to shape German public opinion and behavior. This section features posters, cartoons, and other images depicting hateful stereotypes about Jews, many of them preceding Hitler and the Nazis. “Metamorphosis” (1903), a cartoon from a German satirical weekly, shows an immigrant Russian Jew transforming himself from a poor ragman into a member of polite society. The exhibit comments that “Anti-Semites saw the energy with which Jews made the most of opportunities offered by European society as a threat to their ‘traditional values.’” Another cartoon depicts the Jewish banker James Mayer de Rothschild wearing a golden crown and clutching the globe with his long, sinewy fingers—representing the era’s rising fantasy that Jews secretly controlled the world. This section suggests how propaganda served to incite fear and foster a climate of indifference to the fate of the Jews.

Panels illustrating the elaborate Nuremberg classification system that determined if someone was Jewish or not gradually lead to a section mapping the Nazis’ brutal invasion of Poland, and the rise throughout occupied Europe of death camps like Auschwitz. As noted earlier, the journey through the space is upward—increasingly burdened. As I followed behind a high school group and their much older tour guide, one young man opted to sit down on a bench for a moment. The guide chided him to stand up and keep going. “You’re too young to be tired,” he joked firmly. The student reluctantly lifted himself up off the bench and rejoined the tour. Although he might have just wanted to relax for a moment, I sensed that the exhibit was emotionally exhausting, even for teenagers. I found myself silently weeping at times, moved by poems or images on the walls in secluded corners of the space, or by objects just beyond the main attractions. These areas invited private reflection and mourning.

The third section of the exhibit represents the Holocaust at Auschwitz. This is the most jarring part of the exhibition, although each section lingers in my memory. The section starts on the second floor, with details about how Jews were identified, rounded up, and transported to Auschwitz. We read about items that Jewish families packed for their journeys. We see remnants of the notes they slipped through train doors in the hope that someone would find and give these hints of their journey to people they knew. We see artifacts (enamel pots, eating utensils, wedding photos, a single pretty red shoe) that Europe’s Jews brought to Auschwitz, clearly imagining a future where such items would be needed. Mothers packed diapers and toys for their infants. Yet the Nazis were ruthless in their selection. They divided arriving Jews into those they saw as capable of labor, versus those who were too young or too old, and thus quickly murdered.

Ascending to the third floor of the space, we learn about the mortifying conditions in which Jewish prisoners lived. On a much smaller scale than the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland, this part of the exhibit educates viewers about the types of labor that Jewish prisoners performed, their allotted rations of food, the inhuman treatment they suffered in the barracks, and how most Jews at Auschwitz perished. Of course, the gas chambers and crematoria are absent, but we read and view horrific accounts of how Jewish prisoners were systematically shaved, stripped, gassed, murdered, and disposed of by Nazi-selected work units called “Sonderkommandos” who were usually Jewish prisoners. Sonderkommandos were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to clean up traces of gas chamber victims at Auschwitz. Here, the “Jewish singularity” sought by Rothstein becomes chillingly obvious and indeed monstrously unfathomable.

This carefully chosen accumulation of horrors is part of why the Auschwitz exhibit leaves no doubt that the Nazis’ persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews was unparalleled. The Holocaust was not equal or analogous to the Nazis’ other persecutions of other groups. Nor is it like other genocides carried out in other places (Rwanda, Sudan, or Kosovo, for example). Each of these slaughters has its unique origins, methods, and long-term effects. Nevertheless, the historical and sociopolitical circumstances that preceded the Holocaust and ultimately enabled it are instructive. Today’s viewers can and should consider its precipitating factors in relation to our ongoing crisis on America’s southern border with Mexico. The Trump Administration still refuses to redress the devastating results of its family separation policy, which led more than five thousand children to be separated from their parents at the U.S. border. The number of displaced people worldwide remains at crisis levels. Bill Frelick, the refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch, recently cautioned that President Donald Trump’s slashing of resettlement numbers to the lowest point in the history of the U.S. resettlement program “has upended the delicate burden-sharing equilibrium between the United States and front-line countries that has sustained millions of refugees during their protracted exile. Hundreds of thousands of refugee lives hang in that teetering balance.” Indeed, Primo Levi’s statement, “It happened, therefore it can happen again” seems eerily prescient at this particular moment in time.

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III. Passing on the Holocaust to New Generations

According to the Education Department at the Museum of Jewish History, roughly 34,000 school children have seen the exhibit since its opening in May 2019 (that number is as of October 4, 2019). This is an astounding figure in terms of outreach, especially given that most schools were on summer vacation for roughly three months of this five-month period. I appreciate Rothstein’s concerns about the curators’ efforts to “universalize” the Holocaust for broad audiences in a for-profit context. Yet Rothstein’s critique is misguided.

Indeed, some remarkable things are happening at the Museum of Jewish History. First, by expanding the story of Auschwitz to include racial, sexual, ethnic, and political victims of the Nazis, the exhibit endeavors to reach diverse American audiences who might not normally be moved by the persecution of Jews in the 1940s. During my visit, I followed a guide who led a group of New York City students through the exhibit. The students were mostly black or Latino. They could not accurately answer the guide’s questions about when World War II began or ended. Indeed, they frankly seemed bored. Yet as the guide spoke about factors like racism and high unemployment that led to Hitler’s rise in Germany, the students showed more interest. They asked more questions. Further transformations occurred when students saw representations of the squalid conditions in which Jewish prisoners were held, and displays of the personal items taken from Jewish people at Auschwitz: family photos, cooking pots, a single baby shoe with sock still intact. These objects humanized and generated interest in people long dead.

The moments that triggered the greatest engagement in several tours I followed was when a guide revealed that their own Jewish relatives had perished in the Holocaust, or survived it. All of the guides at the museum are volunteers, and many of them are Jews of European descent. Thus, it is not surprising that the Holocaust affected their families. Rothstein’s claim that the exhibit makes Jews “secondary” quickly fell apart when guides personalized the material they were presenting. One guide told her students that her family originated from a specific city on a map of Poland that they were viewing. The previously quiet students began talking: asking if her family survived and how they had come to America. In another case, the older man whose group I joined throughout most of the exhibit disclosed that many members of his family had perished at Auschwitz. A hush fellow over his students. The young man who had sat on a bench was now upright, quietly attentive to the guide’s disclosure.

Nearing the end of the tour, the students wanted to know more about what had happened to Jewish people at Auschwitz. An older group of women tagging along like me implored the guide to let his students see an area on the top floor that was supposedly off-limits to school groups. “They’re in high school. They’re old enough to see!” the women entreated. The students agreed. We rounded a corner and saw an examining room where “medical” (gynecological) experiments were carried out on Jewish and Roma women. The students fixed their eyes on the metal examining chair, its straps and stirrups. They said little, but their attentive silence spoke volumes about how their relationship to the history being represented had palpably changed. I remembered my own first time at Auschwitz in Poland. Although I had never been indifferent to or unaware of Auschwitz, being there in that chilling place on that bright July afternoon filled me with unexpected empathy. I could see the lush green forests of Oświęcim just behind the barbed wire fence that still surrounded the museum. I imagined being imprisoned there, able to glimpse the “normal” life that continued for others just beyond the fence. Grief overwhelmed me in that moment, along with a simultaneous will to escape and rejoin a world of rights and laws. Today, I see that entangled grief and hope in media footage of children held in cages at the Mexico-US border, and in the anguished faces of their parents.

Whereas the Museum of Jewish History brought more than 700 artifacts from Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to Manhattan in 2019, I would argue that the elderly tour guide’s direct connection to his family’s past performed a kind of credibility with his school group, and introduced a conversation about loss that students were eager to continue. Perhaps this oral testimony, this embodied knowledge that the tour guide was reluctant to discuss further, is an essential component of the future of the Holocaust. New York’s public schools are filled with youths whose lives are, too often, already shaped profoundly by trauma, upheaval, racism, and loss. Their knowledge of Jewish people is often shaped by ignorance and stereotypes. And yet, through encounters such as the ones that I witnessed at the Museum of Jewish History, perhaps urban American youths who can empathize with being feared and persecuted on the basis of race, religion, or culture are part of the future of preserving the Holocaust.