Artifacts of Evil: An Exhaustive Auschwitz Exhibit Comes Downtown

Concrete posts and barbed wire that were part of the electrified fence at the perimeter of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. From the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

May. 05, 2019

It was the largest documented mass murder site in history. And now its story, made gut wrenchingly vivid with more than 700 original objects—from a child victim’s tiny shoe to the jackboot of a Nazi soldier—has come to Battery Park City.

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” opens May 8 on three floors of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the most comprehensive exhibition about the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp to be shown in North America. There are the human objects left behind, the eyeglasses, suitcases and shoes, as well as the artifacts of inhumanity, the camp fence posts and electrified barbed wire, the part of a prisoner barracks, a tin canister of cyanide, the gas used to murder most of the 1.1 million victims at Auschwitz, a million of them Jews.

But Auschwitz is far from the whole story here, only the vile culmination of a long history of hate and bigotry. The origins of the Holocaust are a critical part of the exhibition. Paul Salmons, a curator of the show and director of the Centre of Holocaust Education at University College London, spoke during a recent press tour about the larger meanings of this extraordinary show. Following are his remarks, edited and condensed.

Our exhibition doesn’t begin at the gates of Auschwitz. It tries to locate it within a much deeper history and a broader contextual understanding. We’re trying to show how genocides can develop over time and through that we might be better able to identify warning signs and also methods of intervention. What things could have been done that would have prevented genocide? How can we strengthen the intervention against genocide in the world today? If we only think of Auschwitz as a single place and a moment in time we lose sight of that.

There is a danger that we dehumanize the Nazis and the perpetrators by making them kind of the monsters of our imagination. That makes us feel safer. It’s much worse when you think about these young men, often with families, with loved ones. The Nazis didn’t need to psychologically profile people to get them to do these things. It wasn’t difficult to find them in regular society.  

There’s a too easy oversimplification of how we tell the story of the Holocaust, where it’s always about this is where hate can go. Hate is something that is ever-present, but we don’t always have a genocide fortunately. There are other contexts, like the breakdown of society after the First World War, like the development of the Second World War, like Nazi ideology. But also greed. One of the terrible things is that you don’t have to hate anyone to become complicit in genocide. People watched their neighbors being deported in broad daylight and then they went to the public auctions and they bought the stuff of their deported Jewish neighbors. They didn’t necessarily know there were gas chambers in Auschwitz, but they knew something dreadful was happening to these people and they knew they were never coming back.

We light our candles and we have our Holocaust remembrance days but it should reach into all aspects of the way we think about our lives and ourselves. That’s one of the reasons this exhibition shows how often news got out, and that the wider world knew. That’s why we say not only not long ago, but also not far away. Today, you can open the newspaper and you see the atrocities that continue to go on. And we read them over our cups of coffee and our breakfast tables. And some people do something. It’s not that we’re powerless. Some people did things then. They campaigned, they struggled, they were activists. The more we understand the process of how genocide works, that we can identify warning signs, then we can find means to intervene and be able to strengthen efforts at genocide prevention. It is not enough to just despair.

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” opens on May 8 and continues through Jan. 2 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl. For information on tickets and museum hours go to