For viewers, an ‘intense experience’ at holocaust exhibit
The opening of the exhibit "Konzentrationslager Auschwitz" at the New Hampshire State Library; Monday, March 4, 2013. (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
In some ways, the “before” pictures are the saddest: two young boys standing in an overgrown yard, arms around each other’s shoulders, unaware of the horror that loomed in their future; a crowd of women and children awaiting the gas chamber, such an ordinary mix of expressions on their faces they could be mistaken for a slightly weary group of travelers waiting for a train; the mug shots of the prisoners just arrived at the camp, newly shaven and issued striped uniforms, before the light has gone out of their eyes.
Maybe it’s because you know what’s coming and can do nothing to stop the forces of history, or maybe it’s because the photos that show the horrors within the camp are just too much to fully absorb, but the innocence of these pieces seems particularly hard to bear.
Then again, maybe each viewer, each viewing, gleans something different from the exhibit, which is on display through March 22 at the New Hampshire State Library. “Every time I go by it, I stop for a minute and see something new,” said state Cultural Resources Commissioner Van McLeod, whose office annexes the Map Gallery where “Konzentrationslager Auschwitz” is on display. “It’s a very intense experience.”
On loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, the exhibit takes visitors inside Auschwitz, one of the most well-known World War II concentration camps, through photographs, historic documents, art and written descriptions. Beginning with a history of the Nazi ideology that led to the deportation and execution of millions of Poles and Jews, it offers grim snapshots of life in the pre-war ghettos, the round-up of the ethnic group dubbed “subhuman” by Hitler’s regime, the gas chambers where untold thousands were put to death, the dismal barracks where the prisoners clung to the barest existence and the medical facilities where humans committed calculated atrocities against other humans.
One panel shows imprisonment orders for the Poles who were rounded up in the streets, listing transgressions such as “fanatical Polish attitude and activity harmful to German interests.” Another panel shows the items plundered from prisoners who were executed, including mountains of shoes and piles of women’s hair. Other panels are devoted to the prisoners’ meager diet, forced labor, executions and escape attempts.
Sprinkled among the black-and-white photographs and historic documents are paintings, drawings and personal stories. One painting shows men pulling a plow like oxen. Another, by Jan Baras, shows skeletal, naked men being selected for the gas chamber. A pen-and-ink drawing by Mieczyslaw Koscielniak shows a mother mourning her murdered child.
Taken together, the images evoke powerful emotions. “I came home yesterday, and I was completely drained,” said McLeod, who participated in an opening reception for the exhibit this week.
As difficult as they are to look at, images and stories like these serve to heighten people’s vigilance against any such atrocities happening again, McLeod said. And we should not be so arrogant or naïve as to assume they couldn’t. If hatred such as the recent graffiti on refugee homes is allowed to get a foothold, it can flourish to dangerous degrees, he said.
“What’s important is that as soon as something happens, you encircle that person and you say, ‘not here,’ ” McLeod said.
The exhibit was brought to New Hampshire by the New Hampshire division of the Polish-American Congress, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire. State Rep. John Cebrowski, a director of the Polish-American Congress, saw the exhibit in Boston last year and worked with other members of both organizations to bring it here.
“It occurred to me that this might be something worthwhile to bring back to New Hampshire,” Cebrowski said. “We have to remind folks of this horrific chapter of history.”
McLeod said the exhibit is already bringing a fair amount of traffic to the gallery. Tomorrow afternoon, C. Paul Vincent, Ph.D., chairman of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, will present a lecture titled “The Evolution of Auschwitz” at the State Library. For information visit nh.gov/nhsl.