By Anya Ulinich
Before I went to see “Auschwitz, Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” a massive show at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I had never set foot in a Holocaust exhibit. I didn’t want the inevitable manipulative clichés of exhibit design — dramatically lit artifacts set against wall-sized photo murals of emaciated people in striped pajamas — to place me on the seesaw of voyeurism and guilt. I knew that, however hard I might try to feel situationally appropriate emotions, I would always come up short, simply because it wouldn’t be my dead child’s shoe I would be looking at, but somebody else’s. To summon up situationally appropriate feelings, I would have to imagine my own child murdered, her sneaker placed in a museum vitrine, and me looking at it. In that case, I would smash the vitrine, or die of grief on the spot, and the show would have to be shut down. From this, I concluded that exhibits commemorating murder are not merely incapable of conjuring empathy for the victims, but are counter-indicated for that purpose. (Steve Kandell wrote a fantastic essay about this problem, called “The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction.” Google it.) I thought that the adjective “educational” when applied to Holocaust exhibits meant sentimental education — getting people sad and shocked and angry so they internalize the message of “never again.” A Soviet Jew whose family narrowly avoided Nazi extermination, I had my “never again” pretty firmly internalized, thank you very much.
Instead, the exhibit turns out to be a riveting demonstration of how modern technological, bureaucratic, and scientific methods, innovations, and even values — the sorts of things we associate with progress and better living, can be employed in the service of ghastly human rights violations when people lose sight of the “forest” of everybody’s common humanity behind all the “trees” of bureaucratic order, technological improvements, and the promise of cultural validation. Whether or not our industrialized society currently has the conditions for sliding into murderous populism, this exhibit certainly invites identification. Anyone who stores Auschwitz in the same part of their brain as, say, Jeffrey Dahmer – under the label of “evil so freakish as to be incomprehensible to me, a nice, normal person, so never again seems pretty easy, duh” – this show will be a disturbing eye-opener.
It begins in a passageway where video screens play home movies of Jewish and Roma life in late 1930s Europe. Several of these films are in color – a shrewd choice to drive home the idea of “not long ago, not far away.” The families who could afford color home movies in the 1930s are relatable in other ways, too: they’re well-dressed and urbane, likely museumgoers themselves. They don’t look contemporary, exactly, but a few frames of a Dutch toddler playing on the beach look like they could have been filmed in 1960s suburban America.
The passage leads to the obligatory manipulative room – a somber chamber that looks exactly like what I had anticipated. Opposite a fragment of Auschwitz’s electrified fence, a red, medium heel woman’s shoe is displayed in a brightly lit case with a mirror at the bottom. Behind the case is a wall-sized photograph, where the pretty shoe shows up again in a huge pile of other, less colorful ones. All of these shoes belonged to people who perished in the gas chambers or were exploited as slaves, and it was sad to see artifacts of suffering prioritized according to Hollywood glamor hierarchy. Were we supposed to feel especially bad for the owner of the sexiest shoe? Why not fetishize the old lumpy size 12 sandal, whose wearer had suffered too? I walked out of “Schindler’s List” when it first came out, because I was offended by Spielberg’s use of a similar device, the girl in a red coat. I had just turned twenty then. A new immigrant, I had notions that Hollywood’s sentimental aesthetic shouldn’t dare enter certain narratives.