Global tour of Auschwitz relics begins seven-year, 14-city journey
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'The exhibit can become a great warning cry for us all'

Global tour of Auschwitz relics begins seven-year, 14-city journey

Part of efforts to keep Holocaust memory alive in an uncertain world, a roving exhibition of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau premieres in Madrid

  • Titled 'Not long ago. Not far away,' an exhibition of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau opened in Madrid, Spain, December 2017 (Courtesy of Musealia)
    Titled 'Not long ago. Not far away,' an exhibition of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau opened in Madrid, Spain, December 2017 (Courtesy of Musealia)
  • Original barracks from the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, on display in Madrid, Spain, December 2017 (Courtesy of Musealia)
    Original barracks from the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, on display in Madrid, Spain, December 2017 (Courtesy of Musealia)
  • At the Madrid, Spain, installation of a global tour of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau, artifacts from the former Nazi death camp are juxtaposed with some of the victims' belongings (Courtesy of Musealia)
    At the Madrid, Spain, installation of a global tour of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau, artifacts from the former Nazi death camp are juxtaposed with some of the victims' belongings (Courtesy of Musealia)
  • At the Arte Canal in Madrid, Spain, artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau went on display in December 2017 (Courtesy of Musealia)
    At the Arte Canal in Madrid, Spain, artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau went on display in December 2017 (Courtesy of Musealia)
  • A wagon used to transport Jews to the Nazi death camps is displayed at the exhibition 'Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away' on November 28, 2017 at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS
    A wagon used to transport Jews to the Nazi death camps is displayed at the exhibition 'Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away' on November 28, 2017 at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS
  • Visitors to the exhibition 'Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away' on November 28, 2017 at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid. (AFP/Gabriel Bouys)
    Visitors to the exhibition 'Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away' on November 28, 2017 at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid. (AFP/Gabriel Bouys)
  • Glasses are displayed at the exhibition 'Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away' on November 28, 2017 at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS
    Glasses are displayed at the exhibition 'Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away' on November 28, 2017 at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid. (AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS
  • Shoes taken from victims at the Nazi-built death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, some of which are part of a global tour of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau launched in December 2017 (Courtesy of Musealia)
    Shoes taken from victims at the Nazi-built death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, some of which are part of a global tour of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau launched in December 2017 (Courtesy of Musealia)

An unprecedented world tour of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau premiered in Madrid on December 1, the first stop in a “roving exhibition” about the Nazi death camp where one million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

With the tagline, “Not long ago. Not far away,” the tour will appear in 14 cities during the next seven years, primarily in Europe and North America. It is organized by Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Spain’s Musealia group, which calls itself “an artistic and documentary research project.” The exhibition includes more than 600 artifacts on loan from the museum, as well as from Israel’s Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and private collections.

From a segment of the camp’s electrified fence, to a German children’s board game called “Jews Out,” organizers seek to portray the “dual nature” of Auschwitz as both a site of genocide and enduring symbol of evil.

“Today, the world is moving in uncertain directions. That is why we need to rely more and more on the strong foundations of our memory,” said Piotr M. A. Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. “Nothing can replace a visit to the authentic site of the biggest crime of the 20th century, but this exhibition, which people in many countries will have the opportunity to see, can become a great warning cry for us all,” said Cywiński.

Titled ‘Not long ago. Not far away,’ an exhibition of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau opened in Madrid, Spain, December 2017 (Musealia)

At 2,500-square meters, the collection space is vast, comparable to the world tour of objects salvaged from the Titanic wreck, also put on by Musealia. Visitors are advised to allot 90 minutes to pass through the maze of relics, many of them juxtaposed with historical photographs for context. There are half a dozen large, detailed models to view, including of the gas chamber-crematorium complexes where, in addition to Jews, thousands of Poles, Roma, and other victims were murdered.

Although the tour just opened in Spain, there are already signs of a welcome reception, according to Musealia.

“We already sold more than 27,000 tickets and about 250 school groups have booked tours,” said Iciar Palacios, a spokesperson for Musealia.

“During our first weekend, we were sold out every day, which made us very proud,” Palacios told The Times of Israel, adding that admission is free for school groups who visit between now and the middle of June, when the exhibition will move to its second European city.

Original barracks from the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, being prepared for display in Madrid, Spain, December 2017 (Musealia)

Even before entering the main, cavernous space, visitors to Madrid’s Arte Canal encounter the tour’s largest and most imposing object: a German Model 2 freight car, the kind used to transport Jews to killing facilities during the Holocaust. The evocative “cattle car” is positioned outside the exhibition, alongside traffic and a pedestrian sidewalk.

Once inside the hall, a number of artifacts are used to explain steps in the killing process, including a canister that held Zyklon B, and a gas mask worn by Germans who handled the lethal substance. There are also implements from the gas chambers on display, and a clandestine drawing showing how corpses were cremated.

The exhibition’s figurative heart mimics the “ramp” area of Birkenau, where Jews were deposited to face “selection” beginning in the spring of 1944. One of those late May “transports” of Jews from Hungary was extensively photographed by an SS man, and his album was discovered in 1945 by survivor Lily Jacob. Rather miraculously, Jacob found herself and loved ones in some of the 200 photos, for the transport that day was of Jews from her hometown.

At the Madrid, Spain, installation of a global tour of artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau, victims’ belongings are  juxtaposed with photographs from the ‘Auschwitz Album’ and other sources (Musealia)

A good portion of the “Auschwitz Album” snapshots show Jacob and other Hungarian Jews waiting in line for “selection” as either forced laborers or for “special handling” in the gas chambers. The faces of Jews from this transport seem to peer out of the frame, with more than a handful of people gazing directly at the photographer. Some have grins, and others a look of consternation. Most of the people on the ramp that morning were murdered within an hour or two.

As with Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington, there are “resistance” artifacts displayed to portray the resilience of prisoners who were not chosen for murder. These include rare letters tossed from death camp-bound trains, intended by victims to say goodbye to loved ones, or to warn others not to get on trains for “resettlement.”

Throughout the labyrinth of atrocities, testimony from survivors and perpetrators helps explain operations at Auschwitz. For instance, an account by the camp’s most notorious commandant, Rudolf Hess, sheds light on the killing process, and the desk from which he operated is on display. The so-called “angel of death,” physician Josef Mengele, is introduced in the context of “selections” on the ramp, where he hunted for twins, along with an operating table of the kind he used.

A 1930s German children’s game called ‘Jews Out’ is presented at an artifact exhibition about Auschwitz-Birkenau, December 2017 (Musealia)

The launch of “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away,” comes at a time when  Shoah memory is under assault in some quarters. In addition to Holocaust denial and the resurgence of anti-Semitism, knowledge of the genocide is very low in some countries, including those where the government bans information.

Important for the tour’s Polish organizers, attempts are made to show the “before” and “after” of Auschwitz, or Oswiecim, in Polish, including several centuries of Jewish-Polish relations. For the current Madrid showing, information is given about Spain’s role in World War II.

“Hatred, racism, antisemitism and intolerance are, unfortunately, concepts we still have to face nowadays,” said Luis Ferreiro, exhibition director for Musealia. “Therefore, it is of vital importance to remember the road that led to Auschwitz and the consequences it had.”

At the Arte Canal in Madrid, Spain, artifacts from Auschwitz-Birkenau went on display in December 2017 (Musealia)
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