NEW YORK – Mendel Landau, a young Orthodox Polish Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz, noticed a newly-arrived Jewish prisoner from Hungary in 1944 with a small tzitzis, the fringed prayer undergarment worn by Orthodox Jewish men.
Landau, who was raised in a Hasidic family in Oswiecim – the Polish town where the occupying Germans built the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps – asked to borrow the tallit katan. Caught in this act of defiance, Landau was viciously beaten by an SS guard who tossed the bloodied tallit aside. Risking his life again, Landau retrieved the tallit to return it to its owner. When he saw that Landau was beaten, the owner no longer wanted it.
Landau held dear to that tallit until his liberation from Dachau on April 28, 1945, and eventually brought it with him when he emigrated to the United States, settling in New York.
Landau’s tallit, from the collection of New York’s Amud Aish Memorial Museum, is among some 700 artifacts and 400 photographs on view at “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.“ The powerful and poignant exhibit is at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan’s Battery Park through Jan. 3.
The exhibition is produced in partnership with Musealia, a Spain-based producer of large-scale historical exhibits, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, which provided most of the artifacts. Some 20 other museums and institutions contributed to this monumental exhibit that includes items that are on view to the public for the first time.
More than 600,000 people viewed the traveling exhibit in its first showing at Madrid’s Arte Canal Exhibition Centre. In the first two days in New York May 8-9, about 2,300 people visited.
The exhibition is mounted at a time when hatred, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racially and religiously motivated attacks are on the rise in the U.S. and worldwide, many of the exhibit’s creators noted at the May 2 press opening.
“The only way to defeat anti-Semitism is by education,” said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and the founder and chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Committee.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage plans to have 100,000 older school children tour the exhibition, according to a museum spokeswoman.
Designed by some of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars, the exhibition reveals the historical events that led to the rise of Nazi ideology that fueled Auschwitz, where more than one million Jews and tens of thousands of others were murdered.
The first gallery presents an emotionally jarring display of a woman’s red dress shoe that belonged to an unknown prisoner and a large section of the concrete post that was part of the fence at Auschwitz. The artifacts reflect the experience of Soviet soldiers at the point of liberation, according to Djamel Zeniti, a curator of the exhibit.
“They knew there was a [concentration] camp, but they didn’t know what they would find,” Zeniti told the Journal.
Viewers are then introduced to the town of Oswiecim before there was Auschwitz, when it was an industrial center and an important railway junction. In the early 20th century, more than half of the town’s 10,000 residents were Jewish, a wall text explains. Various religious and ritual items illustrate centuries of Jewish life in Poland and across Europe.
On the museum’s second floor, viewers are immersed in the tragedy of Auschwitz, with the unfolding of the Nazis’ large-scale murder machinery. Among the many items on view are a barrack from the Monowitz slave labor camp, also known as Auschwitz III, where Elie Wiesel was imprisoned; clothing of young children who were killed; and a gas mask and tin of Zyklon-B poison gas pellets. At its peak, 6,000 people a day could be killed in the gas chambers at Birkenau (Auschwitz II). There are also items from Nazis, including the desk of Rudolf Höss, the first commandant of Auschwitz. Höss was hanged outside one of the camp’s crematorium on April 16, 1947, following the Nuremberg trials.
In “Persistence and Resistance,” on the third floor, viewers learn about the courage of Alberto Errera, a Greek-Jewish army officer imprisoned at Auschwitz who surreptitiously took photographs of the crematoria that were smuggled out. Errera was murdered after he attempted to escape.
In this closing section, viewers also encounter Landau’s tallit, one of the exhibition’s key artifacts, according to Robert Jan van Pelt, a preeminent Holocaust scholar and the exhibit’s chief curator. “The Germans wanted to take away his identity,” Pelt said in remarks at the exhibit’s opening. “The tallit speaks to the remarkable survival of the Jewish people.”
The unprecedented exhibit expands the reach of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum beyond Poland, according to Pawel Sawicki, spokesman for the museum and a historian who was part of the team that created this exhibition.
“The same thing that happens after people visit Auschwitz will happen here,” Sawicki predicted. “People will have this touch, this contact with authenticity. It becomes part of your emotional memory.”
The exhibition tells a human story, a narrative of the victims as well as the perpetrators, Sawicki observed. “It’s a very complex and difficult place to reflect about humanity.”