A powerful reminder of the unimaginable
NEW YORK — From the mountains of shoes that were worn by Jews when they were packed into railroad freight cars bound for Auschwitz, the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust displays one: a woman’s red dress pump with a three-inch heel. It prompts viewers to wonder: Where did she think she was going?
Perhaps she did not have time to think when she was swept into the vortex of one of Europe’s innumerable roundups. She was destined for the unimaginable, where she probably vanished quickly: 900,000 of the 1.3 million people sent there were murdered shortly after their arrival.
The New York Times of January 28, 1945, reported on its front page the Red Army’s arrival the day before at Auschwitz, which the story described, in its 16th paragraph, as a place where more than a million “persons” were murdered. Persons. Of them, 1 million were Jews.
A yellowed Times edition from that date is displayed today in the museum, which is located on Manhattan’s southern tip, near the spot where, in 1654, 23 Jews who had come from Spain and Portugal, via Brazil, became the first Jews in what was then New Amsterdam. The museum’s six-sided Core building evokes the six-pointed star of David, and the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, which is the subject of a shattering exhibit, “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” The eloquence of the artifacts, which were first seen when the exhibit opened in Madrid and will be seen elsewhere in North America, is welcome testimony, in an age obsessed with new media, to the power of an old medium: the museum.
The exhibit includes Reinhard Heydrich’s gift for Hermann Goering on his 47th birthday. Before Heydrich was assassinated by Czech partisans in 1942, he was the “architect of the Final Solution.” His gift was a piece of parchment: the original 1551 proclamation, signed by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, requiring Jews to attach to their garments a yellow circle. The seeds of the Holocaust germinated for centuries in Europe’s social soil. They did not, however, have to come to their cataclysmic fruition.
Other artifacts include Heinrich Himmler’s handwriting in his annotated first edition of “Mein Kampf.” And a photo of Anne Frank’s parents’ wedding. And a child’s shoe with a sock carefully tucked into it, waiting for the child to put it back on after the “shower” to which he had been directed, from which he did not return.
Did you know that eight of the 15 participants in the Jan. 20, 1942, Wannsee Conference, which finalized plans for the industrialization of murder, had doctoral degrees? Education is not necessarily an inoculation against evil. Only two participants were older than 50: Genocide was a project for up-and-comers, idealists who acquired the ideals from socialization under totalitarianism.
The exhibit includes grainy, black-and-white film of a passing freight train shedding notes the way a tree shed leaves in autumn, notes tossed from between the freight cars’ slats by the human cargo who were desperate to scatter random traces of themselves before the final darkness. One was tossed from a train leaving Holland by 17-year-old Hertha Aussen: “Most likely this will be the last card you will receive from me.” Three days later she was murdered on arrival at Auschwitz.
What also died at Auschwitz is — was — what is known as the Whig theory of history, which holds, or held, that there is an inevitable unfolding of history in the direction of expanding liberty under law. Just as the Holocaust was not inevitable, neither is the triumph of enlightenment: History is not a ratchet that clicks only one way. Today, in several parts of the world, including on the dark, churned and bloody ground of central Europe, there are various forms of political regression. These are marked by a recrudescence of the blood-and-soil tribalism of degenerate nationalism, accompanied by thinly veiled, or not at all veiled, antisemitism.
Visitors entering “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” immediately walk past these words of Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” Today in China’s far west, concentration camps hold more than a million people who Beijing says show “symptoms” of being “infected” with the “virus” of “unhealthy thoughts.” Similar medical terminology presented the Holocaust as social hygiene.
Polls indicate that a majority of millennials do not know what Auschwitz was. The future might teach them by analogies.
George Will is a Creators Syndicate columnist.