Nazi Horrors of Auschwitz: This Stark Exhibit Reveals What It Was Like to Live and Die in the WW2 Concentration Camp
From shoes to socks to gas chamber peepholes to survivor testimonies, the largest-ever exhibition in the U.S. devoted to Auschwitz is shocking—and an urgent warning to us today.
The card reads, “Child’s shoe with sock (1944).” In the display case is a shoe—small, curved and warped with time; dust or muck or aging scored on its surface. It has no laces. And then, flowing out of its top, is the limp sock. In the display case the shoe and sock are artifacts. But their human meaning, the experience and execution of Holocaust, is all around you.
Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away, at the New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial To The Holocaust (May 8 to January 3, 2020) is full of such jolting moments. The objects can be small, like the shoes, and also feel impossibly enormous and freighted. You will see buttons, eyeglasses, some smashed, more shoes, cooking implements, bowls: intimate emblems of lost lives and unimaginable horror.
Then you come to a metal peephole Auschwitz guards looked through to the gas chambers, a poker used to manage the fires in Auschwitz’s crematoria, a gas mask used by the SS, a rusting shower head. All of these objects are frozen, terribly and meaningfully, in time right in front of you.
The largest exhibition on Auschwitz ever presented in the United States features more than 700 original objects and 400 photographs, and the curators have managed to somehow create something both profound and illuminating. It is unflinching but not exploitative. It tells a story, and it also issues a clear warning to us in the present day about the evils done in the name of all kinds of prejudice and hatred.
The stark intent of the exhibit is made clear outside the museum; there the curators have placed a boxcar like those used to transport Jews to death camps like Auschwitz. An estimated 1,100,000 people were killed at the camp.
The exhibit is not prurient in any way. It takes place over three levels of the museum, and it begins with a sign describing “a time and place when hope turned to fear and governments and their citizens turned to genocide.” Many of the objects on display are from the city’s Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
When Russian Red Army soldiers first arrived at Auschwitz in January 1945, they found 7,000 men, women and children alive, barely, “and piles of unburied corpses… hundreds of thousands of items of clothing and shoes, and tons of human hair.”
The soldiers heard from inmates about the gas chambers, the hundreds and thousands of dead, “of human ashes used as fertilizer; of medical experiments on the living.” Primo Levi noted of the Russian guards’ expressions that it was the “shame that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist.”
A woman’s shoe, red, a strap at the heel, is in the first display case; there are also, standing sinisterly, three concrete posts, isolators, and barbed wire that were once part of Auschwitz’s perimeter.
The first few rooms of the exhibit act as a historical primer, a sober prelude to the graphic horror curated directly from Auschwitz. We read of the Roma people, the development of Auschwitz as a place before its name became synonymous with the worst of vicious abuse, cruelty and mass murder.
There is a potted history of Judaism, illustrated with objects like a Seder Box made in 1929, and volumes of the Mishnah and the Talmud; a Tallit (prayer shawl) and portable Sabbath candlesticks. We read of a Jewish family, the Haberfelds, who lived in the town, then known as Oświęcim, and what terrible fate awaited them later.
The exhibit charts how anti-Judaism transmogrified into anti-Semitism in the 19th century; and Jewish life in pre-World War II Europe.
“Anti-Semitism spreads like wildfire, to such an extent that one must be thankful for practically anyone who shows himself free of prejudice,” wrote Berthold Auerbach in 1880. The responses to this anti-Jewish sentiment are sketched: emigration, Zionism, Orthodox Judaism, Bundism, and “negotiation, assimilation, and conversion.”
Just as clearly, the exhibit next sketches out the growth of Nazism and rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. There are photographs of the many uniforms of Nazism, the persecution of the Roma, and the hideous work of Dr. Robert Ritter, aiming to prove the Roma’s “racial degeneration.” There are pictures of him drawing blood from a Roma woman’s arm.
In display cases are SS belt buckles, a Hitler Youth bugle. The exhibit illustrates how Hitler’s plans to extend his murderous demonization to Jews developed. On one wall is Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous “First they came…” quote.
The exhibit notes that after the liberation of the camps, gay sexuality remained criminalized and LGBT people still persecuted. Before the now-ubiquitous rainbow, the pink triangle worn by homosexual prisoners was reclaimed by LGBT activists as a symbol of pride and resistance; and later used on AIDS direct action group Act Up’s Silence Equals Death T-shirts.
Every category of concentration camp prisoner had a differently colored triangle. There are stark black and white images of roll calls at Dachau and Sachsenhausen. We see a prisoner registration form, a forensic drawing of the corpse of an inmate at Mauthausen.
The increasing ferocity of the Nazi persecution of Jews, encompassing the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht and the Kindertransport, are sketched. There are fascinating images of Jews defiantly practicing their faith within Nazi Germany, and the story of the famous Talmudic academy, Mir Yeshiva. In another display case is one of Anne Frank’s drawings, dated April 9, 1941. The disbelief and indifference of other nations toward the unfolding horrors of Nazi persecution are noted. We read of the letters tossed desperately from trains by those being transported to the camps.
The first images of Auschwitz we see are of the bucolic experiences that its commandant, Rudolf Höss, had there with his family. “My family had it good in Auschwitz, every wish that my wife or my children had was fulfilled,” he said in 1947. “The children could live free and easy. My wife had her flower paradise… There was always something new and interesting in the garden.”
We see a whip laid out, used to beat prisoners, and then Höss’s desk, a guide to the administrative structure of the camp, and many mugshots of prisoners, which the SS would eventually aim to destroy. The mugshots are in black and white; each prisoner poses in three stances.
There is much art in the exhibit; some of the most piercing is by Jan Komski, an artist whose drawings, after being liberated, showed what life in the camp had been like: the grinding work, the torture and murder, the whippings, chokings, the cramped sleeping quarters, the executions, and the interior of the crematoria, bodies piled on top of one another.
There are stark color and black and white photographs of the camp. An anonymous Jewish woman, in one later from 1943, describes mass execution; a photograph shows a woman with two children waiting to be killed. The artist Alfred Kantor said in 1971 he had drawn his experiences of Auschwitz, because, “I felt obsessed, driven in fact by the overwhelming desire to put down every detail of this unfathomable place…”
Here are the suitcases, inscribed with his name, of Kurt Stein, a Czech doctor, along with other people's battered bags and cases. In another display case are SS jackboots.
On video, survivors describe arriving at camp, the guards with dogs screaming at them; the men and women being separated; the elderly and disabled being separated again; women on their own separated from women with children. The survivors describe being wrenched from their partners and parents, in the blink of an eye never to be seen again.
In other display cases are prisoners’ personal possessions taken from them as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz: shaving brushes, buttons, combs, hair-brushes, trinkets, cups. There is a white slip dress worn by 18-year-old Esther Zoldan. One room holds an original barrack—a prisoner accommodation. We see tools from the camp’s workshop. There is a prisoner’s coat, a stretcher, a tobacco pipe, matches and a lighter.
There is the story of a tin ring one man, Arno Levit, gave to his beloved girlfriend Zdenka Fantlová. He said it would protect her, and it did. We learn about the music some prisoners managed to play.
Photographs of SS officers and prison staff laughing and dancing are positioned alongside the photographs of their pre-camp lives belonging to Jewish inmates which were saved by a group of brave prisoners.
The Final Solution is laid out in stark terms, with Höss outlining how he had decided to use Zyklon-B as the chemical mass killing agent in the gas chambers.
Höss boasted Auschwitz had “improved” the process over Treblinka; at the latter the victims were told they were being exterminated, while at Auschwitz Höss boasted they were “fooled” into thinking they were being deloused. A full map of the Nazi killing centers is on one wall. There are pictures (and memories of seeing) Josef Mengele, the physician who conducted horrific experiments on prisoners.
Of the 1.1 million Jews deported to Auschwitz, we are told, “only 200,000 were admitted as registered prisoners; the other 900,000 were murdered shortly after their arrival. Of these, 200,000 were children.” We see an operating table, test tubes and medical instruments used on the prisoners.
In one display case is the frame of a pram, wicker baskets, children’s clothes, and more buttons. We read of bodies piled into pits in the ground, covered in gasoline by the guards, and burned. Eventually, four crematoria were built, “with a combined daily incineration capacity of 4,416 corpses.”
Here are postcards that inmates were instructed by guards to send to loved ones claiming they were being treated well. Here are photographs of people in queues heading to the gas chambers.
Former SS officer Oskar Gröning justified the mass killing of Jewish children thus: “The children, they’re not the enemy at the moment. The enemy is the blood inside them. The enemy is the growing up to be a Jew that could become dangerous. And because of that the children were included as well.”
There is a scale model of a gas chamber door used in crematoria 2, 3, 4 and 5 at Auschwitz; drawings by artists who survived show the horrors of dead bodies being dragged across floors.
We see the brown steel door that gave access to the ash pit of the crematorium oven for crematoria 2 and 3. It looks as hideous as you would imagine, and like the peephole into the crematorium alongside it, looks—viscerally—like a torture instrument. There is a tin of a Zyklon-B, and the “gas column” the Nazis used to transport the gas into the chamber to kill the inmates.
The visitor then alights upon more display cabinets of personal possessions; there are men and women’s shoes; eyeglasses, some smashed and warped.
We see resistance fighter Alberto Errera’s photographs of naked women being led towards the gas chambers and the burning of bodies in a deep pit. Somehow a resistance movement existed amid the murderous carnage. Ester Wajcblum sent this message to comrades before her execution on January 6, 1945: “I know what is in store for me, but I go readily to the gallows. I only ask you to take care of my sister Hanka. Please don’t leave her, so that I may die easier.”
As the Russians closed in, the Nazis forced thousands of brutalized living prisoners to embark upon “The Death March” to transport to take them to concentration camps elsewhere—if they survived the “march” (photographs graphically show many did not).
The exhibit illustrates the moment when the remaining Auschwitz prisoners were liberated—as emaciated and almost dead as many were. There are photographs of piles of bodies from a Life magazine story headlined “Atrocities.”
Some closing videos show what happened to the war criminals who carried out the mass murder and torture at Auschwitz (including Johanna Langefeld and Maria Mandl, Chief Supervisors of the Women’s Camp and Eduard Wirths, Chief Camp Doctor).
A final video shows survivors voicing their own piercing insights. One woman notes how the prisoners’ humanity towards one another compared to their brutalizers’ inhumanity as its own statement of strength and endurance. Others plead with us watching to “stay away from hate,” to learn to live alongside one another.
In 2003, Auschwitz survivor Esther Brunstein said, “I prayed that I would not forever be consumed nor destroyed by hatred. I would say against all the odds I have succeeded—but not without scars.”
The exhibit ends by issuing a louder, political message. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, writes, “The words of hatred create hatred. The words of dehumanization dehumanize. The words of menace increase the threat. We have already started paying for this. [Auschwitz survivor] Raphaël Esrail wrote, ‘The camp is not just a memory. For the majority of us, its reality is omnipresent in our everyday life.’ I have never heard a more terrible warning. The warning against our own words.”
The visitor leaves the Museum of Jewish Heritage and sees the boxcar again: a final jolt of shock. This exhibition is intense, wrenching and a warning to us today—sadly, an urgently necessary one.