The Pain and the Wisdom of Reading About Auschwitz

Posted on July 6th, 2016 by

For much of my internship, I have been doing research on the experiences of Auschwitz survivors, and life at the infamous Nazi death camp in preparation for an upcoming exhibit at the museum. Obviously, I’ve encountered much disturbing information: the usual stories of torture, burned bodies, asphyxiated masses, destroyed families… a ruined culture. But out of the pain and horror experienced in the camps that I can barely imagine through the safe lens of research, I have been searching for something positive to get out of this. I hoped dearly for some kind of enlightenment or wisdom to be seen through the horror that might make the suffering of our kin anything but in vain. Could there be anything uplifting to learn take from all this?

This weekend, Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner died at the age of 87. The message of his life, through all of the suffering that he bore witness to, was to crusade tirelessly against oppression and injustice. It is not a message of revenge, or fear, but one of activism, and of compassion. With so much hate and destruction in the world, the answer is not to harden ourselves and answer it with more hatred, but to counter it and cancel it with loving-kindness and compassion. That someone could experience such a hell, and go on to live such a life, is truly a testament to the good that still thrives within each of our souls, and the revelation that, through pain and suffering, God is not dead, and does not abandon us.

06.06.2016 Interns (23)Blog post by Education & Programs Intern David Agronin. To read  more posts by and about interns click HERE.

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Performance Counts: Looking Ahead

Posted on December 11th, 2015 by

Today’s Performance Counts looks ahead.  JMM plans its exhibits (both rented and JMM originals) on a two to three year rolling schedule.  So while you are enjoying Paul Simon: Words and Music this month we have already locked in our offerings well after 2016’s Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America. With just one traveling exhibit gallery we try to represent a range of important topics in the Jewish experience – from popular culture to communal tragedies.  I have asked Deborah to offer a preview of an important upcoming project.

~Marvin

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In the spring of 2017 we are designing a project that is composed of multiple elements and multiple perspectives.  Remembering Auschwitz is comprised of two exhibits, a commemorative art installation and a program series.  Our object is to take an international story, well known in its outline, and to bring new focus to the details – by looking at the lives of individuals before, during and after the Holocaust.  The project is expected to run from March 5-May 29, 2017, overlapping with the annual Yom HaShoah and 75 years after the camp at Auschwitz became the launching ground for Hitler’s “Final Solution”.

The Feldman gallery will feature two very different exhibits looking at two periods of time A Town Known As Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Jewish Community comes from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. It explores the history of the Polish and Jewish community that eventually became the site of the notorious camp.  The town of Oświęcim—today in Poland—has been known by different names, in different languages, at different times. Though it has a long and varied history prior to World War II, Jews and non-Jews lived side by side in Oświęcim and called it home. This exhibit examines the rich history of Oświęcim, Poland—the town the Germans called Auschwitz—through photographs that trace the life of the town and its Jewish residents, from the 16th century through the post-war period.

A Town Known as Auschwitz - History

A Town Known as Auschwitz – History

A second exhibit, The Auschwitz Album: The Story of a Transport from Yad Vashem interprets the only surviving visual evidence of the process of mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz Album includes photos that were taken in late May or early June 1944, either by Ernst Hoffman or Bernhard Walter, two SS men assigned to fingerprint and take ID photos of the inmates. The photos portray the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia, many of whom came from the Berehov Ghetto, which itself was a collecting point for Jews from several other small towns. The beginning of summer 1944 marked the apex of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry. For this purpose, a special rail line was extended from the railway station outside Auschwitz to a ramp inside the camp. Many of the photos in the album were taken on this ramp. Upon arriving in the camp, the Jews underwent a selection process, carried out by SS doctors and wardens. Those considered fit for work were sent into the camp, where they were registered, deloused, and assigned to barracks. The others were sent to the gas chambers.

From The Auschwitz Album

From The Auschwitz Album

These two exhibits will be displayed side by side and will provide visitors with the opportunity to consider the full history of the town and camp. We are planning on supplementing the exhibit with an art installation, Memory Reconstruction: A Sacred Culture Rebuilt, that will serve as a tribute to Maryland’s community of Holocaust survivors and their families. The JMM will work with California-based artist, Lori Shocket, to facilitate an interactive workshop for survivors and their families. During the workshops, participants bring family photographs and documents as well as stories to share with one another. Each survivor’s story is told through a collage printed on birch wood that integrates photos of personal artifacts along with stories. Collages will then be assembled into an art installation in the JMM lobby. Check out the website humanelementproject.com to learn more about this project and to see samples of the installation from The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Selections from Memory Reconstructed

Selections from Memory Reconstruction

The exhibitions also present us with an abundance of programming opportunities for both school and general audiences. For many years, the JMM has partnered with the Baltimore Jewish Council to facilitate Holocaust-related educational programs for students and teachers and we plan on developing many new educational resources that will help us expand these efforts. We anticipate holding many related public programs including survivor talks, lectures, films and authors talks.

Planning for the exhibitions and programs involves many members of our team.  Although these are “rental” exhibits, we still need to develop a design for space, plan for the preparation of the gallery and the handling of artifacts, and work with the project artist on connecting to Baltimore resources.  And of course, the most critical part of our planning is raising the funds to support all the activities above and more.  Yad Vashem has generously donated the rental of its exhibit thanks to a referral from JMM Board member, Dr. Sheldon Bearman.  Still we estimate that the total cost of mounting the exhibits and supporting the programs will be about $50,000. We are working with the Board Development committee to identify community members with a strong interest in supporting this important project.

We know that many of you reading this newsletter appreciate JMM’s commitment to serving as a premiere Holocaust educational venue.  If you or anyone you know is interested in learning more about sponsorship opportunities for this project (or any of our upcoming exhibits), please contact me at (410) 732-6400 x236 / dcardin@jewishmuseummd.org.

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70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz Memorial Program

Posted on January 26th, 2015 by

A Town Known As Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Jewish Community

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Listening to Ms. Sandler speak.

Listening to Ms. Sandler speak.

On Sunday, January 25, the JMM was delighted to host a very special speaker, Shiri B. Sandler, U.S. Director the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim, Poland along with over 95 audience members. In honor of the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, Shiri spoke on the town of Oświęcim, which despite its long and varied history, is known for one thing: Auschwitz. However, for centuries prior to World War II, Oświęcim was home to Jews and non-Jews who lived rich and vibrant lives. And it is this side of Oświęcim’s story that Ms. Sandler sought to share. The goal of her talk was to illuminate the rich and deep history of the formerly Jewish town that has become known as the symbol of the Holocaust.

Jewish Street, with the Great Bet Midrash (on the right) and the Great Synagogue (on the left), early 20th century. Collection of Mirosław Ganobis.

Jewish Street, with the Great Bet Midrash (on the right) and the Great Synagogue (on the left), early 20th century. Collection of Mirosław Ganobis.

Throughout her presentation, Ms. Sandler shared with us several wonderful images that together help tell Oświęcim’s story. Although her presentation was broken in to four segments: Early Years 1200s-1800s,  Jewish life 1867-1939, Wartime 1939-1945, and Post-War Life and Memory, each highlighting Oświęcim’s transition over time, Ms. Sandler spent a great deal of time discussing what life was like for people directly before the war. One of the first images she shared was of a postcard that highlighted the vibrancy of Oświęcim’s Jewish community. She highlighted the rich social life with another photograph showing members of Poalei Yisrael association in the mid-1930s festively dressed in crowns and robes for the Jewish holiday of Purim. This photograph, stressed Ms. Sandler, really speaks to the essence of Jewish life in Oświęcim as one that both embraced individuality and togetherness.

two girls 1200dpi - Credit line essential

Marta Swiderska (left) and Olga Pressler (right), 1934, Oświęcim. Collection of the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

Ms. Sandler also made a point to discuss the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Oświęcim prior to its involvement in WWII. To do so, she shared a photograph of a group of boys on a public school field trip. Although it is easy to distinguish which boys are Jewish and which are catholic by their hats (Ms. Sandler explained that the students in the hats were Jewish while those without hats were catholic), the boys stand happily united in the photograph. Beyond this, Jews were also active participants in civic life, both in military service and political leadership. Ms. Sandler explained that although the mayor was frequently catholic, the deputy was often Jewish. To further illumine the harmonious relationships between Jews and non-Jews in the town, Shiri shared a photograph of two high school students on first day of classes. However, their close pose indicates that Marta Swiderska and Olga Pressler were more than schoolmates, they were best friends. Ms. Sandler explained that the photograph was taken by Olga’s father, a well-known photographer in Oswiecim, in 1934 when both girls were seventeen years old. Olga was Jewish and Marta was Catholic. The girls would meet frequently at each other’s houses and often went to the Sola River, a popular place for young people to socialize. Unfortunately, when the war broke out, Marta and Olga were forced apart. It was later discovered that Marta survived the war and still lives in Oswiecim; Olga Presler perished at Auschwitz. From there Ms. Sandler transitioned to a photograph of men walking through synagogue ruins gathering ruble. She explained that this photograph was taken in 1940 and shows the demolition of the destroyed Great Synagogue by KL Auschwitz prisoners. It is on the most poignant photographs in the exhibition as it stands in stark contrast with the vibrant images of Jewish life and indicates Oswiecim’s solemn transition into a camp.

Demolition of the destroyed Great Synagogue by the KL Auschwitz prisoners, c. 1940. Collection of Emilia Weźranowska.

Demolition of the destroyed Great Synagogue by the KL Auschwitz prisoners, c. 1940. Collection of Emilia Weźranowska.

To conclude her presentation, Ms. Sandler briefly discussed the impact of the Holocaust as well as rebuilding and remembering Oświęcim. It is estimated that close to 90% of the nearly 3.5 million pre-war Polish Jews perished. Thus, only about 350,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Despite the tragedy, Jews in Poland attempted to rebuild their lives both individually and as a community. Today the Auschwitz Jewish Center stands in Oświęcim and is dedicated to public education about the richness of pre-war life, the Holocaust, and the dangers of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

It was a full house!

It was a full house for this important talk.

Carolyn BevansA blog post by Carolyn Bevans, Museum Educator and Programs Associate. To read more posts from Carolyn, click HERE. 

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