by Ben Zhang, Harvard University

The Holocaust was terrible in every imaginable way. The violence, death and destruction

created trauma that spanned generations. Millions were killed and even more were

displaced in the final years of the Second World War. It was systematic slaughter; it was

genocide. I had learned about the Holocaust in fragments through my childhood visits to the

Auckland War Memorial Museum back home in New Zealand. The museum had a Holocaust

remembrance room with black and white faces plastered across one wall and the railroad

tracks and gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau on the other. Next door in the World War II exhibit

there was a description of the events of the Holocaust and the Final Solution as well as the

statistics of the atrocity. So, I remember the Holocaust through an amalgamation of people,

numbers, events, places and faces. Yet, my interpretation left many difficult-to-answer

questions; questions like how can an entire nation turn against a group of people at the

whim of megalomaniacal dictator or how the survivors can persevere through such

hardships with solidarity.

The Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in

New York City portrayed a narrative that began to answer some of those questions that I

had. To me, the exhibition stressed the power of words and language to distort, manipulate

and shape our reality. Examples of these divisive words were everywhere: embossed on the

walls, on the annotated placards and in the hushed voice of our tour guide. Words like

“concentration” and “extermination”; “problem” and “solution” that sought to

differentiate, categorize or rationalize the atrocity to a population of unbeknownst Germans

were at the forefront of the exhibit.

Unlike traditional Holocaust exhibitions, I thought Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away

did due diligence to the historical contexts of antisemitism in Germany and Europe, the

embarrassment of World War I, the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and Nazism. This

long-winded history gave us insight into how words were used to first discredit, label and

attack Jews and then codified and normalized into propaganda of Joseph Goebbels that

frames a majority of the first floor of the exhibition. The most vivid example of the power of

language is from a display of an opened first-edition copy of Mein Kampf. The book on

display was a copy owned by commander of the SS and chief perpetrator of the Holocaust

Heinrich Himmler along with inscriptions he had made in his study of its fighting words. The

book symbolizes that before the violence of war, violence, and concentration and

extermination camps words were the weapons that the Nazi regime used to attack its

targets.

I had visited Dachau several years before. Wandering its empty barracks and even emptier

fields, I felt removed from the world my audio guide described and the serene site that laid

out before me. The only reminders of its gruesome past were the few stretches of barbed

wire, guard towers and half a crematorium that remains as a museum artefact. Auschwitz:

Not Long Ago, Not Far Away, however, brought the concentration camp to me. One of the

first rooms feature a section of the Auschwitz barbed wire fence opposite a singular red

dress shoe in a glass case. Here, the power of words was highlighted without any words

necessary in the exhibit itself. The Nazis had convinced the owner of the shoes that they

were merely being sent “out east,” using language to deceive them of their fate within the

barb-wired camps. At other times, the words were explicit. “Jude” appears in a blocky font

in the middle of the star of David that is sewn on to the breast of Jews during the Holocaust.

The word creates dehumanizing separation between Jews and other races that the Nazis

used to reinforce their rhetoric of racial superiority.

The exhibit shows me, however, that words could be used as a salvation in even the darkest

times. On display is a small tin ring, given to a woman by her lover whom she met in the

ghettos with his name and the date of the occasion engraved on the inside before they were

sent away to separate concentration camps. She used the words on the ring as her beacon

of hope to survive the concentration camp even though her lover did not. Another artefact

is a small string bound stack of papers cut into the shape of a heart with words of kindness

and encouragement that a group of friends made for someone on their birthday in

Auschwitz. The words were in German, French, Hungarian and Hebrew. The messages

transcend their literal well-wishes to represent friendship and hope in a place where any

one of them could perish any day.

I believe this exhibition in the way it stresses the power of words to instill hope or fear

within us is all the more relevant in our divisive political climate today. Gun-rights, abortion

rights, immigration laws and white supremacy are issues we face today that hinges on

language to morph itself into one shape or another. We should never forget the atrocities of

the Holocaust. But what’s worse than forgetting is not using the cruel lessons we learnt

about language, words and power from the Holocaust in our societies going forward.



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