Following its world premiere in Madrid, the groundbreaking exhibition Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. opened in New York City in May 2019 to critical acclaim: praised by The New York Times as “illuminat[ing] the topography of evil,” while “also highlighting the strenuous struggle for survival.” Produced by the international exhibition firm Musealia and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, the show features 700 objects and 400 photographs from over 20 lenders, and from the collection of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
As of mid-November, over 125,000 people have visited Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. and the Museum has extended the exhibition through August 30, 2020. This level of visitation offers a newfound visibility for objects on display, particularly for artifacts in the Museum of Jewish Heritage collection whose provenance dates back to Dr. Yaffa Eliach’s pioneering work at the Center for Holocaust Studies.
The Center for Holocaust Studies, established by Dr. Eliach in Brooklyn, New York in 1974 as the first organization in the United States dedicated to the study of the Holocaust, merged with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 1990. The Museum is privileged to hold the rich collections of artifacts and testimony steeped in deep community outreach by Dr. Eliach, a noted scholar, and her team. Dr. Eliach was one of the first researchers to collect testimony in the United States.
Beginning her work in the 1970s, she recorded the stories of many survivors who passed away before the gathering of Holocaust testimony became popular in later decades. She saved objects and stories from older survivors before it was too late – before others even began conceiving of similar projects.
One of these objects is a pair of pajamas – an ordinary piece of clothing with an extraordinary story.
Anna Warzecha Tenenbaum, a dressmaker from Tomaszów Marzowiecki, was ghettoized with her husband Joseph, a tailor, and their two daughters, Dorka and Freida. After ghettoization, Anna and her family were deported to Blizyn concentration camp. In Blizyn, Dorka was taken from Anna’s arms during an Aktion and killed, and the family was
separated when Joseph was transferred to Płaszów concentration camp. Later on, Anna and her remaining daughter Freida were deported to Auschwitz where they managed to survive until liberation by the Red Army in January 1945.
After liberation, Anna found in the warehouse of the “Kanada” section of Birkenau, where the robbed belongings of the deported and murdered Jews were collected before being sent to the Reich, a fine pair of white, gray, and maroon striped men’s pajama bottoms. Perhaps she felt attracted to the high quality garment due to her former profession and knowledge of fabrics. She later told curators that she took them in the hope that if she had a gift for her husband – a segulah (an amulet) – she would find him and reunite her family. With her surviving daughter Freida, Anna returned to Tomaszów Marzowiecki, to the town where she and Joseph had married and lived before the German occupation.
Anna spent two years unaware of Joseph’s fate during the war, and finally reunited with him in July 1945. Joseph, who had been imprisoned in various camps and was liberated by American soldiers in a sub-camp of Mauthausen, made
his way on foot over 500 miles back to Tomaszów as well. Anna and Joseph later immigrated with Freida to New York City, where they both worked in the garment business and eventually settled in Forest Hills, New York.
Anna and Joseph Tenenbaum’s pajama bottoms are one of the nearly 100 artifacts from the Museum of Jewish Heritage collection on display in Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. This artifact allows Museum visitors to encounter Auschwitz through the personal history it represents.
It is these personal histories that Dr. Yaffa Eliach sought to illuminate and that the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust now preserves and displays. Dr. Eliach instilled in her organization the belief in striving to “restore human dignity to the victims” of the Holocaust. It is this belief that guides the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in collecting and exhibiting artifacts like Anna and
Joseph Tenenbaum’s pajama bottoms.