The exhibition is called “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” Created by a small but ambitious Spanish firm, Musealia, in collaboration with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, it will be among the most-visited — what’s the word? attraction? obligation? — in this city’s history, based on presold tickets alone.
Berenbaum, a curator of the exhibit and one of the creators of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., told an opening-night audience that the exhibit’s title is “a scandal.” For the themes it explores — nationalism, populism, antisemitism, political oppression, forced labor, cultural genocide — are not themes from long ago and far away. Elements of Auschwitz remain abroad in the world, from the torch-lit neo-Nazis of Charlottesville, to the Uyghur concentration camps of China.
“It happened,” Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote, “therefore it can happen again.”
The two great questions are: How and why? The exhibit is at pains to give very specific answers to both, because the answers show how this revolting crime, its scale almost incomprehensible, was a matter of incremental choices, compounded one by one.
The Nazis polarized German politics into races, tribes and parties, which is nothing unusual. They offered simple answers to complex events, often in the form of lurid conspiracy theories. Again, all too familiar. Decades of upheaval in Russia had scattered hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees across Europe and into the United States. When Hitler charged that Germany’s lost greatness was not a matter of poor decisions by the German government, but rather a stab in the back from world Jewry, he found a base of support eager to believe it.
Just as important were the people who might not have believed it, but did nothing to oppose it. The Nazis pushed boundaries, and when no one effectively pushed back, they pushed further — boundaries of decency, at first, and then actual boundaries on the map.
A subtle but crucial moment, documented in the exhibit, was the boycott of Jewish businesses called by the Nazis in 1933. This was a tipping point for humanity, when history could have gone either way. Hitler was brand new as chancellor, and the boycott was voluntary. Yet, as John Stuart Mill warned: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Those who knew the boycott to be unjust allowed themselves to be cowed by the Nazi bully-boys. It was a fatal first step down to hell. Failure to resist when resistance was relatively easy fostered compliance when resistance became perilous.
Construction of Auschwitz was another kind of slippery slope. It began as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, a miserable place, but not a death camp. Then, because of its history as a railway junction, it expanded to hold prisoners of war and deported Jews from the Eastern Front. This sudden supply of slave labor attracted German chemical conglomerate IG Farben to throw up a factory complex.
The death factory answered the question of what to do with prisoners who couldn’t make good slaves: the old people, the children, the men and women worn down by years of deprivation. The operatives who weren’t born sadists told themselves they were just putting inferior specimens out of their misery. Hundreds of thousands were dead within an hour or two after their trains pulled up to the camp.
Franz Novak, the icy young SS officer who organized those trains, is quoted on an exhibition wall, putting the banal in the banality of evil. “For me, Auschwitz was just a railway station.”
Local philanthropists have contributed to cover transportation and admission costs for area schoolchildren in need. The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (where I recently joined the volunteer Council of Advocates) is supplementing the exhibit with a lecture series. Kansas City’s public television station has produced a documentary on Holocaust survivors in the area.
All in service of an unsettling goal laid down by the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Piotr Cywiński, who says he welcomed the project as a way of spreading “moral anxiety” far beyond the remnants of that horrible place. “The world we have now must be different,” Cywiński has written. “And there are no excuses for not working toward that difference.”