'Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away': Exhibition Review

A harrowing but comprehensive insight into the largest concentration and extermination camp in history

In the last week of April, I travelled to Madrid to view the first travelling exhibition about the history of Auschwitz. Entitled 'Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away', the exhibition is the result of a collaboration between Musealia and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in co-operation with a number of organisations and holders of private collections. Never before has such a large exhibition on the former camp been staged anywhere beyond the Museum itself. But Madrid is just the first stop in a seven-year tour that will see the exhibition held in 14 different cities (seven in Europe, seven in North America), allowing those who might never be able to visit the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau an intimate encounter with this past. Survivor testimonies (both written and filmed), models and over 600 artefacts - many of which have never been publicly displayed before - make up the exhibition.

As soon as I stepped out of Plaza de Castilla Metro station, I had an even better idea of the effort put into this exhibition, as this was the sight that greeted me:
Would such a banner - with the word 'Auschwitz' and a photo of the Gate of Death unreservedly printed across it - be displayed next to a busy roundabout in London? I think not. It is clear that the organisers - and, presumably, the city of Madrid - want as many people as possible to be aware of this exhibtion, and to make a point of seeing it.
I received a further surprise as I approached the exhibition entrance. A cattle car, of the kind used to deport people to the Nazi camps, stood outside the entrance on a short length of railway track. I have seen the cattle car at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and at a number of Holocaust museums and exhibitions. Something about this symbol of the Holocaust, placed opposite offices and shops in the Spanish capital, however, left me feeling almost uneasy. The 'world' of the Holocaust, as we might call it, is so far beyond the realm of everyday life that seeing this object out on the street was somewhat unnerving.

Once inside, I collected my audio guide and began a literal descent into the exhibition. The narrative is split into four parts: 'The Encounter' (a comment on the symbolism of Auschwitz, and a brief introduction to the subject), 'Before Auschwitz', 'Auschwitz', and 'After Auschwitz'.
In 'Before Auschwitz', the pre-war history of Oświęcim (the Polish name for the town) and the role of the Jewish community within it is well-contextualised, as is the brief overview of Judaism and the history of anti-Semitism. I was also pleased to see a section on the Roma and Sinti, particularly as the murderous campaign against them can sometimes feel overlooked at the Auschwitz Museum itself. The exhibition then explained Germany's defeat in World War I and the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, quickly integrating the Nazis' persecution of various groups and the establishment of the first concentration camps into this narrative. Part of the gallery illustrated many Jewish people's desperate attempts to flee Germany and, as a British person, I felt nauseated after reading a note posted through the door of a Jewish man who had escaped to England in the late 1930s. With its rhetoric of the British public being 'taxed to keep scum from Europe whilst [the] English cannot get a house,' I was sadly reminded of similar arguments that are still made here today.
This section also covered the invasion of Poland and the ghettoisation of its Jewish residents, as well as the T4 'euthanasia' programme carried out by the Nazis against mentally and physically disabled Germans. A white doctor's coat hangs in a display case opposite a few possessions of those who were murdered during this operation, whilst nearby photographs of some of the victims attest to the callous nature of the medical professionals who broke their Hippocratic Oath in such a brutal manner.
Unsurprisingly, the 'Auschwitz' section of the exhibition is by far the largest. Numerous elements of the camp's history are explored: the story of its transition from a prisoner-of-war camp to an industrial killing factory is accompanied by galleries on deportations, hiding and rescue, resistance, daily life in the camp, Kanada and medical experiments amongst others. It is in this section that one finds some of the most macabre and chilling artefacts. A gas mask used by the SS, positioned next to a tin of Zyklon B. An operating table and surgical tools used in experiments on innocent prisoners. A false showerhead, discovered in the ruins of Crematoria II after liberation. But these are interspersed with very personal objects, like the remains of a pram that someone brought to Birkenau, and a single child's shoe with a sock still neatly tucked into the top. The layout of one gallery is also particularly emotive; photographs from the famous Auschwitz Album line the walls, with those photographed walking towards a large drawing of one of the crematoria, created by Auschwitz survivor David Olère, its chimney illuminated by a yellow spotlight. And so you have no choice but to walk down the gallery with these people, towards the section describing their death, whilst still unable to truly imagine the horror that awaited them.
The final part of the exhibition is short, but incredibly moving. After a brief look at those who were liberated from Auschwitz, and the function of the Museum today, the audio guide informs you that the 'last word' is with the survivors. In a darkened room, a short film plays messages from survivors, asking viewers to resist nationalism, prejudice and other forms of hatred. Their call to action is both rousing and motivating, especially after walking through such a harrowing exhibition. Theirs is not quite the final word, however. In the next room is a collection of films showing pre-war Jewish and Roma and Sinti life, some of which are in colour. The films are silent but accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi's hauntingly beautiful 'I Giorni'. We see families splashing around in a swimming pool; a group of boys, smiling shyly at the camera; two children picking flowers and offering them to their father to smell. It is an emotional but fitting end to the exhibition. The visitor is reminded that after the Holocaust, there was no 'happy ever after'. Survivors struggled to piece their lives back together and millions of innocent people - who had lived ordinary but fulfilling lives - had simply been wiped out.

I spent six and a half hours in 'Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away'. I don't imagine that many others would do the same, as I listened to the whole audio guide, read every caption, watched every film and took many photographs. Even in all that time, however, it is clear that one can only begin to scratch the surface of the history of Auschwitz, and in some ways, the exhibition is certain to raise more questions than it answers.
The exhibition is presented very strikingly without appearing too dramatic, whilst the sound effects used at points in the audio guide (such as a mob during Kristallnacht, Olère hurriedly drawing his sketches, and SS personnel enjoying themselves at Solahütte) really allow a history that might seem very distant, particularly to young people, to come to life. I was also very impressed with the way the exhibition was related to a Spanish audience, with displays on the German Condor Legion that fought in the Civil War and the number of Spaniards imprisoned in concentration camps. It will be very interesting to see how this history is linked to the other countries in which it will be displayed.
If you have the chance, I urge you to visit this exhibition. Whether or not you have been to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, you are guaranteed to learn a great deal and see artefacts you may have thought simply disappeared in the chaotic aftermath of the war and the Holocaust. The team at Musealia and the Auschwitz Museum should be congratulated for a thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition that I hope will be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

For more information on the exhibtion, visit www.auschwitz.net.