We all know that New York City has a host of world-class museums. And many of them are based on ethnicity, but also appeal to a wider interest and have a broad mission.
One of the most intriguing is the Museum of Jewish Heritage—and its current program, one of the most important any museum has come up with: Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.
It is really more than a “program.” It is an immersive experience that, somehow, is able to go even beyond the museum’s stated mission of being “a living memorial to the Holocaust.”
For most of this spring, three floors of the museum are dedicated to just one troubling symbol of that time—Auschwitz. It was the killing fields of the Nazi empire, embracing a myriad of ways to exterminate, or to devalue, those the German leaders believed were inferior or presented a danger to the empire.
Originally set up as a prison for political prisoners and “undesirables” such as gypsies, Auschwitz became the morbid site of 1.3 million deaths—1.1 million of them Jews, who arrived in cattle cars, under the thumb of special guards trained to be vicious. More than 800,000 Jews were killed soon after they arrived.
The exhibition, I must note, is hardly an intellectual exercise. It is an emotional, almost immersive, experience. Consider that the Museum combed its display from more than 20 institutions and other museums world-wide. The result is that 700-plus objects—a cannister of the murderous gas, for example—and 400 photographs make up this startling and commanding experience.
The Museum says it is the most comprehensive look at Auschwitz ever seen in the United States. And the chilling tag line—“Not long ago. Not far away”—makes one wonder whether it can happen here.
One of the most chilling artifacts is also one of the most banal—a striped prison shirt. Just looking at it makes you realize how dehumanizing the Nazis made everyone, the moment that ugly top was put on. There are so many of these “normal” items in the exhibit: shoes, suitcases, eyeglasses, even teeth (extracted for the gold).
And then there are shards and pieces of Auschwitz—timber from a prison barracks, wood from a fence that herded the prisoners in. More eerie is a gas mask, or the desk used by the commandant. And the model freight train? No, it is not a child’s toy—it was the vision German engineers had of the type of rail cars that would transports the prisoners.
As you wander, almost in a trance, from one display to the next, you have a sense of frustration and anger. And yet, there is also a sense of awe that this could be put together. You’ll also see the objects that people who survived, and eventually made it to America, held onto. Thus, there is a sketchbook of more than 150 paintings and drawings of several camps. There is a trumpet that a musician claims saved his life at Auschwitz, where he was needed to play in the prisoners’ orchestra. And there are dreidels—a spinning child’s toy—uncovered from a mass grave.
Imagine looking at Heinrich Himmler’s annotated copy of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiography. It is so prosaic, yet chilling. Himmler is generally considered the architect of the holocaust. His helmet is on display as well.
Further information is online at: mjhnyc.org. The museum is located in Battery Place, in downtown Manhattan—a bright, vibrant area, just what one needs.