by Michael Meagher, Boston University

In some ways, visiting a museum exhibition on Auschwitz-Birkenau can be more chilling

than visiting the site itself. Under an open sky in Poland, surrounded by tourists with selfie

sticks, it is at times difficult to imagine the evil that occurred in the same location only two

generations ago. In a somber museum filled with hushed visitors and harsh spotlights, the

material artifacts of the concentration camps and the photographs of those events seem to take on

a greater significance and immediacy when they are staged in an exhibition. This may be simply

a fault in my own imagination, however I believe that I stand on solid ground in asserting that

many visitors would prefer the design, narrative, and execution of the Auschwitz. Not Long Ago.

Not Far Away exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York to the Auschwitz-

Birkenau State Museum in Poland.

The passage of years and the changing of sensibilities over time have exposed a

clumsiness in the Polish museum’s noble but flawed attempt to memorialize the horrors that took

place there. A brief list of well-known issues with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

includes the controversial decision to display human remains such as ashes and hair, a failure to

acknowledge the extent to which the Holocaust was a project designed specifically to target

Jews, a dearth of historical background, lack of humanization of the victims, and paucity of

survivors’ testimony. While these concerns, among others, may not be apparent to casual visitors

of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, they are more commonly discussed in academic and

professional circles.

What the Auschwitz Museum in Poland lacks, the New York exhibition contains in

abundance. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, historical background on Judaism, anti-

Semitism, and the Jewish Enlightenment provide much-needed context on the world in which

European Jews lived at the beginning of the twentieth century, and photos of victims and

testimony from survivors can be found throughout the museum. Most of the artifacts and

personal effects on display are linked to their owners, who are identified by placards and often

photographs, as well. Where the Polish government’s state-run museum often feels impersonal,

haphazard, and brusque, Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away maintains a consistent

sensitivity to the nuances of relating historical narratives, in particular to the memory of the more

than eleven million people, including six million Jews, who were murdered at the hands of the

Nazis.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s exhibition also avoids the oversimplifications and

facile tropes that often recur in discussions of the Holocaust. There is no glorification of

American heroism in the face of fascist tyranny, self-righteous Zionist vindication in hindsight,

obscuring of the specifically anti-Semitic designs of the Nazis, or other editorializations that

sometimes mar the historical integrity of discussions of the Holocaust. All this deserves praise

and recognition; it goes without saying that the exhibition merits a visit before it leaves New

York in January.

In addition to the perennial duty to remember the victims of genocide and the atrocities

that cut short their lives, Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away is a timely reminder of the

depravity and moral cowardice of human beings. During a moment in which the evils of white

supremacy have once again become all-too-apparent, it is imperative that we educate ourselves

about the history of bigotry, hate, violence, and genocide. As citizens in a country whose liberal

democratic values continue to be challenged, people of goodwill have a duty to remind ourselves

of humanity’s dark past.

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