Artifacts from the Capital of Evil

Suitcases taken to Auschwitz by deportees

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” opens at Reagan Library

    When Holocaust expert Dr. Michael Berenbaum was a child in post-World War II New York, he “grew up in a generation of ice cream and whipped cream to make up for the trauma of the war.” People never explained the horrors they left behind.
    Dr. Berenbaum believes that Holocaust survivors  felt that if they looked back too soon, they would be paralyzed by what was destroyed, as was Lot’s wife after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Thirty years later, they were willing to speak, but other people could not relate to their experience in the same terms. The survivors needed a voice.
    Since the 1970s, Dr. Berenbaum, an author, professor, rabbi, and advisor on historical films and museum design and a professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has dedicated his life to “explaining to the American people what could not be explained to me as a child, with tools to help people understand in a way that’s comprehensible.” He was Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1988-1993 and was the first Director of its Research Institute. Later, he served as President and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (today the USC Shoah Foundation), which took the testimony of 52,000 Holocaust survivor in 32 languages and 57 countries.

German WWI gas mask

    Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 1,500,000 people had visited Auschwitz, the largest and most lethal of all the German Nazi concentration and extermination camps, the place that Dr. Berenbaum described as “emblematic of evil in the 20th century and the capital of evil in Jewish history.” More than 1,100,000 people were murdered behind its barbed-wire fences between June 1940 and January 1945 in a cruel, systematic, and industrialized fashion. More than half of the people interned in Auschwitz died of starvation, exhausting work, executions, tortures and punishments, diseases and epidemics, pseudo-scientific experiments and the harsh conditions of the daily life in the camp.
    Now, an exhibition co-produced by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Spanish company Musealia is traveling to various cities of the world to show an extraordinary collection of more than 700 original exhibits of inestimable historic and human value, that bears direct witness to one of the darkest chapters of humankind. Dr. Berenbaum is the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum curator.
    Through this daunting selection of objects, the Auschwitz exhibition portrays thecomplex reality of the notorious camp, universal symbol of the human tragedies that resulted from Nazi ideology, and the world of victims and perpetrators with a clear goal—to elucidate how such a place could come into being and dig into how its existence has determined our present worldview. The exhibit is designed to educate the public and learn from history to ensure that this sinister past is never repeated.

Concrete posts

    Most of these objects, which include toiletries, eyeglasses, stamp collections, clothes, shoeshine kits, and religious artifacts, have never been shown to an audience on the West Coast before. There is a piece of artwork by a survivor depicting what looks like a Red Cross truck that was used to trick people into thinking they were being helped when it actually contained lethal gas.
    As Dr. Berenbaum said, “They say that the devil is in the details. The more we see the details, the more we see the devil in them.”
    Recorded survivor testimony is used throughout the exhibition. “Those who were there can take us to dimensions of experience we can’t understand otherwise,” Dr. Berenbaum added. “The voice of the survivor will be heard, describing pure evil, how people were killed, and how people lived under the shadow of death.”

Uniform SS belt buckle

  Dr. Berenbaum believes that it is fitting to hold the exhibition at the Reagan Library, which requested to host it. He explained, “Ronald Reagan understood and confronted evil. During his Hollywood days, at the end of World War II, he saw raw material of film files of concentration camps. They were shown in theaters and were instrumental in forming U.S. policy.”
    Based on his experience with the exhibition in other venues, Dr. Berenbaum is confident that “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” will have sellout crowds. He concluded, “The Holocaust resonates with all of us, because it’s the paradigm of evil. It has abiding importance until we can improve the world in which we live. I want people to come away with the idea that we can’t let hatred proliferate in a way that this become possible.”

ILENE SCHNEIDER has been chronicling Jewish life in Orange County for five publications since 1978. She has served as a communications consultant for a number of Jewish organizations. She is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.



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