Yesterday I heard an interview on CBC radio with Robert Jan van Pelt, a University of Waterloo professor of architecture who curated an exhibition about Auschwitz. I got chills when he said the fascism of the 1930s became possible when people didn’t care about whether or not something was true, when “the distinction between lies and truth had become irrelevant.” Given the proliferation and acceptance today of lies and fake news in Europe and North America, I really have to wonder about the oft-heard admonition of “never again.”
Auschwitz, of course, was the Nazi concentration camp in Poland where approximately one million Jews and tens of thousands of others were murdered. Those others included Polish political prisoners, Catholic priests and nuns, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, prisoners of war from Russia and other countries, homosexuals, the disabled, convicted criminals, and so-called other “inferior” people.
van Pelt, who is one of the world’s experts on Auschwitz, was gratified to see that visitors to the exhibition were “totally absorbed” in it. “We wanted to present Auschwitz not as a kind of safe, piece of a past that is past,” he said, “but basically as part of our own world and that in some way it’s emergence was possible because of conditions that we face today.”
Luis Ferreiro, director of Musealia, an international exhibition company, reminds us that Auschwitz “did not start with the gas chambers. Hatred does not happen overnight: it builds up slowly among people. It does so with words and thoughts, with small everyday acts, with prejudices.”
The exhibition, previously shown in Spain, is aptly named: Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away. It can be seen at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City until January 3, 2020.