His voice wavers between anger and frustration. Didn’t we learn anything from the Holocaust, he asks? Wasn’t the world shocked and sickened enough to never let anything like that happen again?
The answer is, sadly, no. So, Michael Berenbaum had no choice. He’d have to take the world by the shoulders and shake it violently, because violence seems to be the only way to get its attention anymore.
For the next seven years, the curator of a traveling exhibition that will bring you to tears and anger at the same time will visit cities all over the world with “Auschwitz — Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.”
It opens March 24 for a limited engagement at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, its only West Coast showing. If Berenbaum had a choice, it wouldn’t be opening anywhere.
“Even our title is a scandal because it’s saying ‘Not long ago, not far away.’ We should live in a world where Auschwitz is far away and long ago. Where it’s ancient history and should have repulsed people enough that the world would never go near that again.
“Unfortunately, we live in a world where the Holocaust has become more relevant with time, not less. So, we had to create something that was timeless and, unfortunately, provocatively timely,” he said.
Almost every artifact and photograph in the exhibit comes from the museum at Auschwitz — visited each year by two million people from all over the world. Not nearly enough eyes on it to move the needle.
If the world was not going to Auschwitz, Berenbaum and his team of Holocaust historians would bring Auschwitz to the world. The question was, did the world want to see it? It opened in Madrid last year and drew 600,000 people in a limited engagement.
“You’re always wondering who’s going to be interested?” Berenbaum said. “When we built the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., we asked how was it going to relate with the farmer from Kansas?
“We were certain it was going to mean something to the Jewish community, but how was it going to play in Kansas? If it played there, it was of interest everywhere.”
After Madrid, Berenbaum found out. Kansas was one of the first stops in the United States. The exhibit sold out for seven months. That farmer they were worried about was interested.
“While many museums start with nothing, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum started with everything,” he said. “They didn’t have to collect a thing, they just had to preserve what hadn’t already been recycled back into the war economy and left behind after the Germans fled.”
The Jewish people themselves weren’t wanted, but their most personal possessions — family photos and heirlooms, religious objects, wedding rings — they had with them when they were herded onto those railroad boxcars, were gladly taken and recycled for the German war economy.
It was all ripped from them when they got off at Auschwitz and were divided into two groups — one strong enough to work, one weak enough to die.
The elderly went first, the children next, then their mothers because they would be worthless as workers without their children.
Even death wasn’t enough, though. They had to be robbed first.
“Imagine, you’ve been inside that railroad car for several days with 100 people, given only one bucket of water, and one to defecate in, no food, and the only thing you knew was where you were going was going to be worse than where you’d been,” Berenbaum said.
What they must have thought as the boxcar doors slid open and they smelled fresh air again.
“I’m getting off. I’m going to see the sun again. I’m out in the open.” I’m going to die.
“That railroad car became one of the most important symbols of the Holocaust, and it’s the first thing you see coming into the exhibit,” Berenbaum said. “We try to make those walls speak.”
And they do. At every stop, the curator will stand in the corner and watch people pause at a piece of jewelry or a smiling family photo from happy times, when just a wall over is a chilling picture of a woman with dead eyes, dressed in a striped concentration camp uniform — her name, her humanity, stripped from her and replaced with a number.
“People get emotional and take their time going through the exhibit,” Berenbaum said. “There’s a quiet, deep respect you see on their faces. You don’t enter an exhibition on Auschwitz lightly.
“You can’t say ‘never again’ because genocide has occurred again and again. But you can say ‘not on my watch, not with my acquiescence, and not without me paying attention and caring about it.’”
It sold out in Kansas, it should sell out in Simi Valley, too. People care.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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