“Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” will run from March 15 - Sept. 2 in Boston. | Musealia

‘Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.’ A groundbreaking exhibit coming to Boston

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‘Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.’ A groundbreaking exhibit coming to Boston

“Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” will run from March 15 - Sept. 2 in Boston. | Musealia

“When you were forced to undress in the dressing room of the gas chambers, that is, in some way, the last agency you still had,” said Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt, one of the world’s leading experts on the Holocaust.

He described the scene at Auschwitz: People gathered together, fingers on the buttons of their shirts, pants, removing their clothing with their own hands to make their deaths easier for their Nazi murderers.

This is a moment that, in concept, has stuck with van Pelt in his scholarship: The buttons as this physical vestige of a population’s last seconds of autonomy before death.

The buttons in question still exist today, rescued from the fate of their owners. For years, they have been safeguarded in Poland under the care of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Now, the buttons – along with 700 other mostly never-before-seen artifacts – are coming to Boston in the world-traveling exhibition, “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.”

The exhibition will come to The Castle at Park Plaza in Back Bay on March 15 and will run through Sept. 2. The Boston exhibit will be the fourth stop in its North American tour – though with several years in between the last U.S. leg. Since it opened in 2017, it has traveled to Madrid, New York, Kansas City, Malmö, Sweden, and Los Angeles.

“I always bring people to the buttons,” said van Pelt, who is the chief curator of the exhibition. “These buttons were the last thing people touched before they were driven into the gas chambers naked. That touch is still there. Look at the buttons: They’re all different and they’re all the same, just like you and me. I think there’s a good story to be told there.”

The question of story – and what a good story can be – was one concept behind the exhibit’s creation. Back in 2009, Luis Ferreiro, the director of a Spanish exhibition company called Musealia and the creator of “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away,” read “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl’s story of surviving three years in four concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

“I was profoundly touched,” Ferreiro recalled. “The first reaction was this kind of moral imperative to do something. And of course, the only thing we could do was an exhibition.”


A visitor looks at a sign in the exhibit. | All photos courtesy of Musealia

Ferreiro, who is not Jewish, received some Holocaust education as a child, but nothing that induced the sort of reaction he had to the book. Something about the humanity of Frankl’s story, paired with the blunt, almost scientific descriptions he presents, struck a chord, and as he began to think about what an exhibition on Auschwitz might look like, Ferreiro tried to emulate the work that had so moved him.

“We don’t try to easily moralize, or point a finger, or tell people what to do or what to think or how to feel,” Ferreiro said. “It’s more about presenting the facts, and giving people the tools to understand how this genocide could unfold in the heart of our continent, and within the most technologically and culturally advanced society of its time.”

It took years for Ferreiro to bring the exhibition from concept to reality. One of his first acts was to bring on van Pelt, whom he found via googling “Auschwitz expert.” After a few email exchanges, he flew to Toronto, where van Pelt was teaching at the University of Waterloo.

Van Pelt has written more than a dozen books, mostly about Auschwitz, and has spent a lot of time thinking about constructing narratives in that context. He’s also a professor of architecture. “When you’re in a three-dimensional setting and you work with light, and the body gets engaged by moving from space to space and artifact to artifact, and you are enveloped in space … it’s a very different way of storytelling,” he said.

Along with his scholarship, van Pelt also has spent nearly three decades leading tours in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He’s had a lot of time to think about what being in a physical space does to a viewer, how the reality of a site like a concentration camp is able to tell a story – and how it is not.

A child explores the exhibit in Los Angeles earlier this year.

“When I take people to a place like Auschwitz, I tell people ‘Don’t go there with the big expectation that something will touch you right there and then,’” he said. He expects people to be touched at some point, even if it’s later down the line, but he does not abide by the philosophy of many museums to design an exhibit that aims to simulate the experience being represented, something he thinks is “totally nonsensical.”

“You are there, you just had a nice lunch three hours before, or breakfast, you know you’re going to have dinner at the end of the trip, and none of the conditions of the horror actually can be replicated in the tour, so you shouldn’t even start to do that,” he said. “We were very conscious of that in the way we designed the exhibition. We were not going to create any simulation of what – actually – the experience was of the people who were sent to Auschwitz.”

Because of this, the exhibition – uniquely, perhaps, in terms of Holocaust memorials – is what van Pelt calls “safe.”

“This is not an exhibition where we’re going to show you mountains of corpses,” he said. Rather, visitors are guided through a series of rooms on an audio tour, brought through the story of how Auschwitz came to be, what it was, and what remains. They look at objects, move through the space, and hear oral histories from survivors and their relatives.

“We do take a lot of time and space dedicated to ‘before Auschwitz’ or ‘the road to Auschwitz,’” said Ferreiro. “For people to understand that Auschwitz and the gas chambers is just the final step of a very long process.”

The entire exhibit generally takes around two hours to move through, but this length, too, is intentional.

“This is about, in some way, struggling with a very difficult topic, to take the time for it, to set time aside, so that you can pay attention to it,” said van Pelt.
For Troy Collins, this was certainly the experience when he saw the exhibition in Spain when it first opened. “The second you start, there’s no saying to yourself, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll skip number four,’ or ‘I won’t do them all, I’ll stop before I get to the end,’” he said. “You can’t stop. It is that captivating, and that moving, that we listened to the entire thing.”

Collins was so moved, in fact, that upon leaving, he quickly began talks with Ferreiro to bring the exhibition to North America in his capacity as the executive vice president of World Heritage Exhibitions, the artifact division of a larger company called Neon. He helped facilitate the exhibition’s arrival in North America, and, now, in Boston.

A visitor walks around the exhibit.

“Auschwitz nowadays, for us – it’s a warning,” said Ferreiro. “And it’s a warning we have to listen to. We know where certain roads lead. We don’t have an excuse. We would love to live in a world where Auschwitz was a part of our remote past, and it would be seen as ancient history. Unfortunately, we cannot say we live in that world, where we don’t fear new genocides happening, and vast violations of human rights taking place.

“Us, non-[Jews], we carry this potential virus of antisemitism in our society,” he said. He hopes that, while Jews are obviously welcome and encouraged to come, the bulk of the visitors will actually be non-Jews, those he sees more in need of the kind of education that the exhibition aims to provide.

“The last people that we need to tell this story to are Jews,” said Collins. “Everybody else needs to understand and believe in this story, and feel some sense of responsibility to keep it from happening ever again.”

“Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” will be at The Castle at Park Plaza from March 15 through Sept. 2, 2024. Tickets are available now at theauschwitzexhibition.com.

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