Award-Winning Auschwitz Exhibition Comes to Union Station

Installation view of the exhibit with a photograph (right) of prisoners rounded up and waiting to be transported before a display case of belongings they were forced to discard. In the photo at left, a group waits to board a train to a camp. (courtesy of Musealia / photo © Jesús Varillas)

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” Brings Viewers Face to Face with “One of the Worst Episodes in the History of Humanity”

On Jan. 27, 1945, the Soviet army stumbled into the Auschwitz concentration camp. Joseph Stalin had heard rumors about the camp’s existence, but they had not been confirmed, and as it had no military value, the army left a small contingent and moved on.

The Germans had abandoned the 40-building complex only days before, setting fire to what they could and marching more than 50,000 of Auschwitz’s prisoners to other camps — up to 1,500 of whom perished en route. They left behind personal belongings of the victims and body parts strewn about the buildings and grounds, as well as perhaps 9,000 prisoners barely alive.

In late May, a German-made WWII-era freight car, used by the Nazis to transport Jews to the death camps, was installed in front of Union Station for “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far Away.” (photo by Jim Barcus)

Most of those liberated left, but some stayed behind to help care for their former fellow prisoners, and, when the war ended, they and others committed themselves to restoring the concentration camp as a memorial. Opened in 1947, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum was dedicated to those who perished at Auschwitz, assuring that their suffering would never be forgotten.

In 2019, Europe’s largest World War II death camp attracted more than 2,300,000 visitors. And now, Auschwitz has come to Kansas City in the largest traveling exhibition of the Auschwitz concentration camp ever brought to the United States.

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” — produced by the Spanish based Musealia, a global producer of large-scale, historical exhibitions — features more than 700 objects and 400 photographs and unpublished memoirs, most exhibited in the United States for the first time. The artifacts come primarily from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, supplemented by artifacts from more than 20 international museums and institutions.

Occupying some 20,000 square feet and 20 thematic galleries, the exhibition features a diorama of the site, as well as remnants of fencing and the camp’s buildings and furniture, a gas mask used by the SS, an original German-made Model 2 freight car used to transport Jews to extermination camps in Poland, and a long list of personal belongings of the victims.

A gas mask worn by a guard or gas chamber attendee (courtesy of Musealia / photo © Jesús Varillas )
Auschwitz barracks for the prisoners (courtesy of Musealia / photo © Pablo A. Mendivil)

It tells the story of how the small, sleepy Polish town was occupied by the Nazis and became the home of a concentration camp that evolved into a complex of three main camps and almost 50 subcamps, and where, from the spring of 1942 to January 1945, 1.1 million human beings were murdered. Ninety percent were Jews, but many others the Nazis declared “undesirables” met the same fate.

The objects, combined with film footage and audio commentary, tell a compelling and award-winning story. In 2020, a European Heritage/Europa Nostra Award recognized the exhibition for “preserving the memory of one of the worst episodes in the history of humanity.” In the same year, the same groups selected it for one of their three Grand Prix laureates, noting that such exhibitions “are important in that they raise awareness and make the lessons from our shared past more tangible.”

The first to envision “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” was Luis Ferreiro, Musealia’s director. He found his inspiration in the best-selling and influential book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946) by Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s book is primarily a personal meditation on his gruesome experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz, but Ferreiro found in it a message for our time, which he wanted to address: “Genocide is a social act that requires a wide scope of society beyond those who perpetrated the horrors of Auschwitz. It encompasses normal people led by an ideology of hate, normal people who lived normal lives amid the horror of it all.”

Engaging in what became a five-year project, Ferreiro entered a collaboration with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, led by Piotr Cywiński, the museum’s director; Piotr Setkiewicz, the museum’s Research Center Director; and a panel of leading Holocaust scholars, led by Robert Jan van Pelt, of the University of Waterloo, Canada. The challenge the team faced was how to shape a traveling exhibit that tells the story of Auschwitz to those who have not had the experience of personally visiting the concentration camp.

As Setkiewicz explained, the museum’s role was to be involved in “the preparation of the exhibition both organizationally (lending the exhibits and describing them) and in consultations aimed at assuring scientific precision in presenting the history of Auschwitz.”

Cywiński added that the exhibition asks “important questions about our contemporary responsibility” by attempting to explain why the Nazis engaged in such acts of hatred and barbarity, why some chose to benefit from it, and why still others simply looked the other way.

Present-day shot of the death gate and selection ramp at Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the largest camp in the Auschwitz complex, now a memorial and museum. (photo by Pawel Sawicki © Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum – Musealia)
View of the exhibit showing the uniform of striped jacket and pants, with the red triangle “badge” indicating it was for a Jew. The display features a list of “badges” assigned to each group of prisoners, including pink for homosexuals. (courtesy of Musealia / photo © Jesús Varillas)

Chief Curator van Pelt explained that the exhibition is built on stories — “stories about individuals and families, stories about communities and organizations, stories about ideologies that teach people to hate, and responses that reveal compassion and love, stories that all merge into an epic story of a continent marked by war and genocide.”

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” premiered in Madrid, Spain, in December 2017. It arrived in the United States in May 2018 at New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, where its stay was extended to this past May 2.

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” opened at Union Station June 14, the 81st anniversary (1940) of the first prisoners transported to Auschwitz. Luis Ferreiro credits its coming to Kansas City to the tenacity of Union Station’s President and CEO, George Guastello, who, when he caught wind of the exhibition — two years before it premiered in Madrid — met with Ferreiro and stayed in touch with him every step of the way, convinced that Kansas City was the right place for the exhibition.

As Guastello explained, the exhibition, one of the largest in Union Station’s history, is particularly appropriate for Union Station, as it was the point of departure and return for soldiers to fight the Nazis, but also where displaced persons, especially Jews, fleeing Nazi Germany and the ravages of war arrived in Kansas City to make a new home.

A woman prisoner’s shoe appears before a photo of a pile of shoes. When prisoners arrived at the camp, they were forced to discard all their belongings and dress in uniforms. (courtesy of mMusealia / photo © Jesús vVarillas)

A must-see is the Remembrance Room, which includes testimonials of survivors to those who responded to the unfolding genocide with courage and resistance, those who were responsible for inspiring acts of resistance, resilience and altruism.

But perhaps Piotr Cywiński summed up best what the exhibition has come to represent: “The message of ‘never again’ is not to look backwards, but forward . . . with the conviction that the Holocaust makes us unable to be passive in our world today, that we must always respond to any symptoms of xenophobia, antisemitism, dehumanization, violation of fundamental rights or promotion of any ideology of hatred.”

Visitors are encouraged to avail themselves of the audio guide, which complements the artifacts with oral testimonies of witnesses and victims and provides a heightened level of authenticity to their experience.

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” opened June 14, continues through Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and will close shortly thereafter. Those planning a visit to the exhibition should go to the exhibit website www.unionstation.org/auschwitz-not-long-ago-not-far-away to purchase advance tickets. A wide range of lectures and seminars organized by Union Station and the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education can be found at the same website and that of the MCHE: mchekc.org/auschwitz2021.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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