Paul Salmons, Program Director of UCL Centre for Holocaust Education at the Institute of Education at University College London, is one of the “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” curators. He discussed with us the background of an embroidered blouse from the Museum of Jewish Heritage collection, one of the artifacts added to the Auschwitz exhibition when it moved to New York.
Not only have we been entrusted with this venue and this opportunity to share this history with new Yorkers and others visiting the city, but also to draw upon the rich archives, the very powerful artifacts and objects, and the stories from the Museum of Jewish Heritage collection. And one which has deepened and enriched and made even more powerful our exhibition is a blouse that was owned by a young woman in a ghetto just about 60 miles or so north of Vilnius in Lithuania, German-occupied Lithuania.
This blouse was hand-embroidered by Rachel Porus’ sister Chaya and Chaya gave it to Rachel as a present in the ghetto. I think it created or posed for me a particularly interesting, challenging, difficult curatorial problem – because where do you place this blouse? Is the story we want to tell the story of the ghetto, of this sisterly love and this present that’s given? That’s powerful.
Is it though the story of Rachel herself who was a registered nurse and who tended the sick in the ghetto? This is a story we need to show the visitor, that people not only resisted and showed resilience in many ways, but helped others also in the most dreadful circumstances.
Or is the story of this blouse the fact that on the liquidation of the ghetto, the family along with others from that ghetto were sent on a train toward Vilnius, but actually that was not to be their final destination. The people were taken to a place called Ponar, a forested area shortly a little way outside of Vilnius where they were forced to strip and they were murdered into mass graves, mass pits. This is the story of the Einsatzgruppen and the shootings and the killings. One and a half million or so Jewish people and 200 thousand or more, quarter of a million Roma and Sinti people were murdered in this way. Rachel Porus was one of them.
But we still have the blouse.
And the reason we have the blouse is that a young woman, a friend of the family who was given the dreadful job of sorting the belongings of the dead, recognized this blouse and rescued it. And managed to smuggle it into the Vilnius ghetto where Chaya, the sister who had embroidered it, had escaped to – and as she got herself into this ghetto area receives the blouse of her murdered sister. Is that the story we tell?
Or is the story that Chaya herself was wearing this blouse when she escaped from the Vilnius ghetto and joined the partisans in the forest, one of 30 thousand Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis from the forests of eastern Europe and wore this in memory of her sister and carefully stitched and repaired it during those years of combat and resistance. And now of course the memory that she kept alive is something that we try to do justice to and to tell again inside the Auschwitz exhibition.
Watch Paul Salmons discuss the blouse’s background and see closeups of Chaya Porus’s stitching and repairs in this video: