Auschwitz artifacts to go on tour, carefully
Organizers balance awareness concern, criticism of profit.
More than 72 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the first traveling exhibition about the Nazi death camp will begin a journey later this year to 14 cities across Europe and North America, bringing heartbreaking artifacts to multitudes who have never seen such horror up close.
The endeavor is one of the most high-profile attempts to educate and immerse young people for whom the Holocaust is a fading and ill-understood slice of history. The Anne Frank House, the Jewish Museum Berlin, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and others all find themselves grappling with ways to engage an attention-challenged world with a dark part of its past.
Yet anything that smacks of putting Auschwitz on tour instantly raises sensitivities. Organizers of the exhibition, which include the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum itself, took pains to explain that, yes, visitors would probably be charged to enter in at least some locations — just as they are if they visit the museum in Poland. But officials at the museum and the company behind the exhibition say that their intent is not to create a moneymaker out of the suffering of millions of Nazi victims.
Several prominent Jewish leaders expressed support for bringing pieces of Auschwitz to people who might not otherwise see this history. They said that they were not overly concerned about an entrance fee; organizers said that they would ask for it to be small, if any, and for admission to be free for students.
“If you’re telling me, ‘Gee, they’re coming out and they’re going to be millionaires over this,’ I would object,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights organization. “But if they’re making what is normally considered to be a fair amount of profit since the final end is that hundreds of thousands of people maybe in different places all over the world will see the exhibit — I think that’s quite legitimate.”
The exhibition — announced on Wednesday by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the organizer, the Spanish company Musealia — will include pieces from the museum such as a barracks; a freight car of the same type used to transport prisoners; letters and testimonials; and a gas mask, a tin that contained Zyklon B and other grim remainders from the complex’s gas chambers.
Seven years in the making, the exhibition is a response to growing anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, those involved with it said.
“We have never done anything like this before and it’s the first project of this magnitude ever,” said Piotr Cywinski, director of the state museum, which is on the site of the former camp, in southern Poland. “We had been thinking about this for a long time, but we lacked the know-how.”
Even though the Holocaust remains a major focus of study by historians and is a staple of school curriculum in many countries, knowledge about the camps is fading for younger generations, he said.
The exhibition will make its first stop in Madrid, aiming for an opening around December, and then tour for seven years. Precise dates and locations will be announced in about a month.
It is no longer enough to “sit inside four walls, stare at the door and wait for visitors to come in,” Cywinski said, so museum officials decided to reach out to a more global audience.
The exhibition was broached in 2010 when Musealia, a family-owned company whose shows include artifacts from the Titanic, approached the museum.
Luis Ferreiro, the company’s director, said the idea came while he was grieving the death of his 25-year-old brother. He had found consolation in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a book by a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl, about his experiences in four extermination camps after his pregnant wife, his parents and brother all perished.
Inspired by the book’s lessons for spiritual survival, Ferreiro said he decided to try to bring the subject of the Holocaust closer to those who may never have a chance to visit the museum.
It took time for Ferreiro to gain the trust of the board of the Auschwitz museum, which was surprised to receive such a request from an exhibition company outside the museum world.
The museum demanded that the artifacts be kept secured at all times and that the exhibition comply with the museum’s strict conservation requirements, including finding proper transportation and storage, as well as choosing exhibition spaces with sufficient lighting and climate control.
The museum also insisted that the artifacts be presented in historical context, especially because many aspects of World War II are only vaguely understood by younger generations. For instance, in Spain, asking about the history and place of Jews in Europe “would probably get some strange answers.” The exhibition will show that Spain — which during the war was under the rule of Francisco Franco, a dictator and ally of Adolf Hitler — was not home to large Jewish communities and did not have extensive connections with the Holocaust, yet there were notable exceptions, such as Ángel Sanz Briz, a Spanish diplomat who saved more than 5,000 Jews in Hungary from deportation to Auschwitz.
“In other words, we want to show that the Franco regime was certainly very sympathetic to the Nazis,” said Robert Jan van Pelt, a history professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a Holocaust scholar who has been working on the exhibition. “But individual Spaniards could make, and made, a difference.”
As for the morality of charging money to see artifacts from a death camp, and potentially turning a profit, Ferreiro said that traveling exhibitions like this one usually generated huge expenses. Putting the display together has already cost more than $1.5 million, and there are no guarantees “the exhibit will even be sustainable,” Ferreiro said.
Musealia will offer museums that want to host the exhibition a flat fee for transportation, installation, design and all the content.
“We need to earn an income to sustain ourselves and keep the enterprise going,” Ferreiro said, “but our goal is to focus on larger social goals such as enlightenment and education.”
The Auschwitz museum will receive a fixed amount that will be given to it yearly to cover any expenses arising from the project, though neither museum officials nor Musealia specified how much. If the exhibition is profitable, the amount the museum receives will be increased, Ferreiro said.
The story of Auschwitz, as told through the artifacts, will cover the physical location of the camps and their status as symbols of structuralized hatred and barbarity. The exhibition will begin with the history of Oswiecim, the Polish site of the German camps, whose population was about 60 percent Jewish before the war. That history will be followed by the origins of Nazism after the First World War.
Of the 1,150 original pieces to be displayed, 835 will come from the state museum. The rest have been lent by other institutions, like Yad Vashem in Israel, or directly by survivors and their families, much of which has not been displayed before.
An undated handout image of a photo, part of the first traveling exhibit about Auschwitz, shows a survivor with his family before the war in Vienna. The exhibit will begin traveling later in 2017 and will stop in 14 cities across Europe and North America.
A pair of eyeglasses and a child’s shoe and sock, each of which belonged to an Auschwitz victim, will be part of the first traveling exhibit about the Nazi death camp.