My visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Posted on February 24th, 2017 by

As we will be opening Remembering Auschwitz: History, Holocaust and Humanity on March 5th, it made me think of my visit a few years ago to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. While I had learned about the Holocaust from an early age and had visited many Holocaust memorials and museums, nothing could prepare me for visiting the site where 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives, including nearly 1 million Jews.

The entrance to Auschwitz Birkenau

The entrance to Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp

The day started in Krakow where I awoke early to take a bus through the Polish countryside to the town of Oswiecim, now known better by its German name of Auschwitz. I began by passing under the infamous sign “Arbeit Mach Frei”, translated as “work makes you free.” I first spent time in Auschwitz 1 which was the main camp and was where the Nazis carried out the first experiments at using Zyklon B to put people to death. It was also where the camp commandant’s office and most of the SS offices were located.

Guard house and barracks in Auschwitz 1

Guard house and barracks in Auschwitz 1

I stood in the courtyard where the SS conducted executions by shootings. In the museum, I saw haunting exhibits of victim’s belongings such as worn shoes, glasses and abandoned luggage. There were also rooms of empty poison gas containers and human hair. One particularly affecting room was full of children’s clothing.

Cattle car and train tracks

Cattle car and train tracks

I then proceeded to Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, which was where millions died in the gas chambers. I was struck by the scale of the complex which seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. The camp was surrounded by miles of barbed wire fencing and guard towers. I found Birkenau to be a more meditative space, generally free from the tour groups in the crowded barracks. I walked along the train tracks to a sole cattle car which once carried victims to the camps. I stood in silence inside one of the remaining gas chambers. I also paid my respects at the ruins of crematoria and pits which were filled with human ashes. The prisoner barracks were damp with not much light coming through and had what seemed like hundreds of wooden bunks inside.

A visible reminder of the people now gone

A visible reminder of the people now gone

Throughout my visit, I felt a sense of numbness, shock and grief. I returned to Krakow feeling empty inside and unable to comprehend how humanity could be capable of such evil. Although this was an emotional day, I am glad I visited because I believe it is important to see first-hard the evidence of the concentration camps.

Schindler's office and enamelware made by the factory workers.

Schindler’s office and enamelware made by the factory workers.

The next day I visited Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory, which tells the inspiring story of how Schindler saved over a thousand Jews from the camps. While the day before I had witnessed the worst of humanity, the next day my faith in humanity was slightly renewed.

My Holocaust journey did not end in Poland. After I returned to the states, I returned to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where I learned more background on the Shoah. I also discovered great resources on their website on how individuals can take steps to fight against anti-Semitism in their own communities. Even if you are not able to travel to Auschwitz, I encourage everyone to visit their local Holocaust Museum and to stand up against genocide that may be happening around the world. Like many of you, I await with anticipation our Remembering Auschwitz exhibit and look forward to attending many of the upcoming programs ranging from presentations by Holocaust survivors to artist insights and musical performances.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

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Matisse, Diebenkorn, Church, and Kassman

Posted on January 12th, 2017 by

Enjoy our jaunty shot of the exhibit title!

Enjoy our jaunty shot of the exhibit title!

Last week, thanks to tickets through the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Rachel and Joanna visited the Baltimore Museum of Art’s exhibit “Matisse/Diebenkorn,” which brings together the work of these two artists, Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn, for the first time.  As always when museum professionals visit other museums’ exhibits, we had Thoughts.

Alas, no photographs allowed in the exhibition.

Alas, no photographs allowed in the exhibition.

Joanna:

I’m not an art historian by any means, but I did take a few classes in college – just enough knowledge to make me dangerous.  For one thing, I thought I knew Diebenkorn’s work, but the first gallery showing his early abstract work confused me; thus my very first Thought was, ‘Oops, I was picturing someone else.’ Pro-tip: look at the exhibit website before visiting, instead of just thinking you know what’s going on.  The BMA’s helpful list of things to know includes “[Diebenkorn] moved between abstraction and figuration,” which would been useful if I’d read it ahead of time.  Thankfully for my ego, the third gallery included works that were more familiar.

I used to have a print of this painting hanging in my kitchen. I know art exhibits should not always be about familiarity and recognition, but it is still a pleasant feeling. Cityscape #1 (1963) via SFMOMA.

Rachel:

Having no background in art history, I tend to find the labels at art exhibitions a little too concise, containing little more than title, date, artist, and who owns the piece now. I was thrilled to find that BMA Senior Curator of European Paintings & Sculpture Katy Rothkopf, who curated the Baltimore-occurrence of this show chose to use meaty labels, often including contextual details about the techniques used, the artists’ lives during the period of the piece’s creation, and particularly helpful explanations of how one piece could have been inspired by another.

A perfect example – Joanna and I loved the label for Matisse’s Reclining nude with arm behind head (1937) which included a reference to a “stumping” and was immediately followed by an explanation of the technique and what it does for the piece!

Thank goodness for the internet - and wikiArt! Here's Chabot Valley (1955) and Corsican Landscape (1898), two of the images paired in the exhibit.

Thank goodness for the internet – and wikiArt! Here’s Chabot Valley (1955) and Corsican Landscape (1898), two of the images paired in the exhibit.

 

Joanna:

I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of books from Diebenkorn’s own library, all focused on Matisse’s work. Not only did this help strengthen the exhibit’s argument – that Matisse was a heavy influence on Diebenkorn – but it also showed a willingness to break out of the traditional “art, and art only” style of exhibition and include supporting artifacts and documents, a willingness which I think many art museums have recently embraced.

Rachel:

I agree with Joanna! Including material beyond the artworks themselves really rounds out the experience for me. I would urge all art curators to go even further if possible – I love when there are multiple photos of the artist at work, images of the artist’s workspaces, even cases with their tools.

 

Joanna:

The BMA offered audio guides, which (at least when we were there) nearly every guest accepted.  I am not personally a fan, though I know many people very much enjoy them, and they can be a useful tool for conveying additional information without overloading the walls with text.  But one reason I don’t like them is that they discourage conversation. This type of exhibit, with labels asking visitors to actively look at each image and compare them to others in the gallery, seems particularly well-suited to dialogue… but everyone is just listening to their headsets.  Rachel and I did not have headsets so we felt free to discuss (quietly, don’t worry), and I think that enhanced our experience. I did see at least one other pair of women braving the isolation of the headphones to talk about what they saw, which made me happy – especially because one of the women said to the other, as if continuing an earlier “Hmm, I’m not so into these” conversation, “Well, I would take a Diebenkorn if someone gave it to me.”  Me too!

Rachel:

I will say that having everyone else in the gallery wearing headphones made me much more comfortable voicing all my thoughts and opinions to Joanna! I’m often worried about disturbing other visitors or making anyone feel judged (we don’t have to like the same art, after all), so on a (very) personal level the popularity of the audio tour worked out great for me. But I also know I would have enjoyed the experience much less without the ability to turn to Joanna and discuss.

If you’re hoping to see the exhibit yourself, make plans to go soon – the show closes on January 29th!

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Exploring New York’s Jewish Heritage

Posted on December 28th, 2016 by

Last week, I took a few days off work to visit several exhibits and to take a walking tour in New York City. I first visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I explored the exhibit “Jerusalem: 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven.” The exhibit highlighted how Jerusalem was a melting pot of different cultures and religions from Ethiopian Christians and Indian Sufis to Spanish rabbis. I saw objects such as a gold Jewish wedding ring in the form of the Lost Temple of Jerusalem and a page from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah, with Hebrew words “Next year in Jerusalem.”

gold ring shaped like a fancy building

Jewish wedding ring, courtsey of the MET Museum.

I then walked over to the New York Historical Society where I toured the exhibit “The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World.” This show chronicled how Jewish settlers came to inhabit and then change the New World all while struggling to hold onto their identity. While it focused on the early Jewish population in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, it did mention Baltimore as well as Rabbi David Einhorn, who was a leader in Reform Judaism and spoke out passionately against slavery during the Civil War. There were several outstanding artifacts such as the 16th century memoir and prayer book of Luis de Carvajal the Younger who was persecuted during the Inquisition as well as a Torah scroll from Shearith Israel which was rescued from a fire set by British soldiers in 1776.

Photo of the entrance to an exhibit, with a text panel on the left and an illuminated world map on the right

First Jewish Americans exhibit, courtsey of NYHS

While I was in New York, I also went on a walking tour of the Lower East Side offered by the Tenement Museum. As our Education team is currently developing a walking tour of Jewish sites in Jonestown, I was curious to see how other Jewish museums deliver their tours. On our hour and a half tour, our guide discussed how immigrants lived in over-crowded tenements and worked long hours in sweatshops struggling to make a living. She mentioned many of the same themes we talk about at the JMM, such as the tension between assimilation and holding onto your traditions. We admired the beautifully restored Eldridge Street Synagogue and strolled up Hester Street which was once full of open air markets and push carts in the early 1900s. We also walked past the sites of Ridley’s Department Store and Loew’s Canal Street Theatre as well as PS 42, where generations of immigrants learned how to be “American.”

A female tour guide holds a black and white image of a street scene. She is standing in the same place the photo is an image of.

Then and Now on Hester Street, courtsey of Tenament Museum

I ended my day attending Shabbat services at Central Synagogue. The synagogue was built in 1872 in the Moorish Revival style and was designed by Henry Fernbach, often cited as the first Jewish architect in America. Central Synagogue lays claim to being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the city. I was awe struck by the glorious sanctuary with its tall central nave and gilded Star of David, which brought to mind architectural elements present in both of our historic synagogues, Lloyd Street and B’nai Israel.

Color photo of the interior of the Central Synagogue building. The room is lit with golden light.

Interior of the Central Synagogue

Throughout my time in New York City, I was able to better appreciate the city’s Jewish heritage and draw connections to my own work at the JMM.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

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