Auschwitz ar­ti­facts to go on tour, care­fully

Or­ga­niz­ers bal­ance aware­ness con­cern, crit­i­cism of profit.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - Joanna Berendt ©2017 New York Times

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.

COL­LEC­TION OF THE HOLOCAUST CEN­TER FOR HU­MAN­ITY, SEAT­TLE, COUR­TESY ELEANOR FEDRID

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.

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKE­NAU STATE MU­SEUM

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.

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