Category Archive: Exhibits

Global initiatives virtually commemorate the Holocaust — in a very real way

Meaningful social media campaigns by Israel’s Yad Vashem and the World Jewish Congress make history and remembrance accessible to all ages

World-ort-CROPIt is remarkable to feel a connection with someone you’ve only met online. Even more so when he has been dead for the past 75 years. And yet, a random matching program on Yad Vashem’s IRemember Wall connects between a Facebook user and victim of the Holocaust in a deeply personal way.

For this writer, the name Chaim Gindel was drawn from the museum’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. He was born to David and Leja in Ołyka, Poland, in 1928. He was a 14-year-old student when he was murdered in the Shoah. His cause of death is unknown.

The too-short story is recounted on a Page of Testimony that was submitted in 1997 by a surviving cousin in Woodmere, New York. If interested, that handwritten page can be viewed, as well as the names of his siblings who also perished in the Holocaust.

Somehow, after pairing with this once anonymous stranger, the concept of the “6 million” is less about a quantifiable number and more a short hand for a collective of individual humans.

“Many, if not most people, don’t have a particular person or name that they know and commemorate,” said Dana Porath, Yad Vashem’s Internet Department Director.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, is one of several museums and institutions tapping into the potential of online presence and social media campaigns to raise awareness among an audience that increasingly has little first-person contact with the horrors of the Holocaust.

“We realized in the last couple of years, particularly in social media, that people want to do something more participatory. It’s fine to read, learn and explore, but with the opportunity to engage with a particular topic or issue, people really want to do something,” said Porath.

Porath, who was a Jewish educator for 15 years in North America before moving to Israel, began working at Yad Vashem in 1994 and joined the fledgling internet department in 1999. Today, the museum’s online presence is robust and growing.

“In 1999 I don’t know that we really had any expectations, we couldn’t envision what could happen and what the possibilities were,” said Porath. In addition to the myriad of educational materials, the museum has presented some 150 curated online exhibitions — currently “Last Letters From the Holocaust: 1941” — and dozens of social media projects.

Five years ago, Yad Vashem began the IRemember Wall project in which participants are linked with specific names of victims. The algorithm is purposefully random, because, said Porath, “Every victim deserves to be remembered.”

The project is held only once a year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Said Porath, it becomes “a collective experience” that combines the wall and the comments it garners. She said she expects to reach at least 3,000 participants this year.

“The possibilities created by technology have allowed us to reach out and engage in ways we couldn’t imagine,” said Porath.

Prompting the next generation’s memory

Leading up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, some 250,000 posted on social media using the hashtag, “#WeRemember” — from New York Senator Chuck Schumer to Dr. Ruth Westheimer to French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy. Some 120 million were reached in the World Jewish Congress campaign, according to a spokesperson. The international organization represents Jewish communities in 100 countries.

“The goal is to reach those who don’t know much about the Holocaust, or who might be susceptible to those who deny it, and to remind the world that such horrors could happen again,” said World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer.

Singer said that through the tools of social media, WJC hopes to engage the youth, “because, soon, it will be their responsibility to tell the story and ensure that humanity never forget.”

The project was adopted by Jewish schools around the world, with many pupils creating short films that were posted and shared widely.

Stefan Bialoguski, the public relations officer for World ORT, said that well over 1,000, “perhaps in the thousands,” of students in schools and colleges across the former Soviet Union, Israel and Europe took part. World ORT claims to be the largest global Jewish education and vocational training NGO.

“The energy which World ORT students have devoted to the #WeRemember project should reassure us that not only has the history of the Holocaust been passed on intact to a new generation, despite the worst attempts of deniers, but also that our children are unbowed by the weight of what happened to our people within living memory,” Bialoguski told The Times of Israel.

A 3D virtual ‘eyewitness to history’

It is this same impulse to preserve historical continuity in an era of fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors that has propelled another unusual project, the New Dimensions in Testimony by the USC Shoah Foundation. Using some 50 cameras at once, a dozen Holocaust survivors have individually been filmed giving 10-25 hours of testimony in an effort to create a 3D virtual “eyewitness to history.”

Set to launch in two museums this year, New Dimensions was in beta stage for some five years and had a 2015 trial run at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, with the first completed interactive testimony of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter of Toronto.

In addition to recounting the horrors of the Holocaust, the interactive hologram survivor can be asked questions, prompted to sing songs and tell of life before the tragedy. For many who wouldn’t dare ask personal questions for fear of insulting, interacting with this artificial intelligence can be freeing.

According to project literature, a survey of the Illinois pilot found over 95 percent of visitors felt the technology “enhanced their ability to connect” with Gutter’s story. Additionally, 68% of students reported “above average critical thinking ability after the interaction.”

“Everything is now in post-production to meet expected deployment in 2017,” state project materials and the project should open at the first two confirmed museums: the Illinois Holocaust Museum and in Terre Haute, Indiana, the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

In an era of technological leaps and bounds, the ability to engage a new audience is vastly magnified and the impulse to ride social media buzz is strong.

To capture the world’s attention, said Yad Vashem’s Porath, her team strives to make the commemoration of the Jewish victims and their life before the Holocaust accessible through contemporary issues such as the Olympics or International Women’s Day.

“We are always trying to have meaningful, relevant and respectful content,” said Porath. “But to make the Holocaust respectful in 140 characters — that’s a challenge.”

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How Auschwitz Can Be Both a Memorial and a Center for Education

20-1485285708How should we define the authentic remains of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, which today are protected and preserved by the Auschwitz Memorial?

Should we define it as:

  • 150 buildings, about 300 ruins, including those of five gas chambers and four crematoria in Birkenau that are especially important to the history of the camp.
  • Over 13 kilometres of fences, and more than three thousand concrete fence posts.
  • About 110,000 shoes and 3,800 suitcases of victims, 2,100 of which bear the names of their owners.
  • About 39,000 negatives of registration photographs of prisoners, 48 volumes with about 70,000 of their death certificates, 248 volumes of Zentralbauleitung documents, and 13,000 letters and cards mailed from the camp by prisoners.

This is just the beginning of the list which summarizes the extent and the challenge of our Museum.

There is also another priceless part of our authentic collection: the archives, with over 30,000 pages of testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses as well as over 45,000 pages of their memoirs. These are individual stories of people who survived, stories which can help us today to comprehend the existing architecture of the former camp through personal experiences, emotions and dilemmas.

I agree with the words of Menachem Rosensaft quoted by Tom Tillett that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” Yet Tillet is not accurate in saying that “the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage,” since, in fact, this building was never actually completed during the war.

Historical Decisions

This year the Auschwitz Memorial will be 70 years old. It was created thanks to the efforts of survivors in July 1947 and in many ways, the way we operate today is based on their decisions. One such decision was to organize and house exhibitions, archives, collections and the whole management of the institution of memory in the much better constructed buildings of Auschwitz I, and to leave Birkenau in as authentic a condition as possible.

Another key decision made by survivors was to create replicas of a few structures in Auschwitz I that Germans had destroyed: They reconstructed the execution wall and one of the gallows, and used original parts to reconstruct two crematoria ovens inside the building that had housed both the original crematorium and the original gas chamber. They wanted to allow people to enter the only standing building of a former gas chamber, as all the other gas chambers and crematories in Birkenau were ruins, and those ruins were kept as such.

Almost all visitors see both parts of the Memorial. They see exhibitions and learn many historical facts about the creation and functioning of the Auschwitz complex — including Birkenau. After this educational introduction, they have the unique opportunity to better understand what they learned by looking at the remains of Birkenau itself.

We are aware that the main exhibition was created by survivors in 1955. This is why one of the most important current projects of the Memorial is creating a new exhibition, which will not only tell the story of extermination and concentration camps from the perspective of victims but will also show the world of perpetrators and the place of Auschwitz among Nazi German state institutions. The three parts of the new exhibition should be open in 2021, 2023 and 2025, respectively.

Current Challenges

We also are aware that the Memorial’s infrastructure, which was originally set up decades ago to serve up to 500,000 people annually, is not equipped for the volume of visitors we receive today (in 2016, for instance, we received over two million visitors.) We understand that people who visit and spend long hours at the Memorial need some basic accommodations, such as a bookstore, restrooms, and even a small vending area. This is why we have already started the project of creating a completely new visitors center — importantly, outside the core historical area.

We are aware that tourists visit the Memorial, but from our perspective the Auschwitz Memorial is not a tourist attraction. First and foremost, it is a place where we commemorate the fate and life stories of the 1.3 million people deported there: 1.1 million Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and others. The visitors are told at the beginning of every guided tour that they are about to enter a cemetery-like site, and they should behave appropriately. Most people respect that.

The Memorial is also an important center of preservation. Our modern laboratories and conservation experts fight against time to save every single authentic remaining object— a toothbrush, a house key, a fragment of eyeglasses, a family photograph, an SS document, or the ruins of a gas chamber or a wooden barracks for prisoners (Tillett is again mistaken about the wooden barracks in Birkenau — they were not rebuilt, they are original.)

It’s also important to note that no other former German Nazi concentration camp or extermination center sites in Europe is in such authentic condition today, nor have any been so successfully preserved. The management at the Memorial can be so effective in our preservation efforts because of international consensus granted to us by the International Auschwitz Council, a consultative-advisory organ of the Polish Prime Minister’s office dedicated to preserving, maintaining and developing the site of Auschwitz and other Memorials located in today’s Poland. Its members include world-renowned authorities on the history of concentration camps and the Holocaust.

Education

The Auschwitz Memorial is also a place of education, with learning activities developed at the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, which was created in 2005. Last year, we finally secured funding that will allow us to create a modern headquarters for the center, with lecture rooms and all necessary infrastructure to conduct more extensive education programs for people from around the world.

362 days a year, our 286 educators explain the difficult and sensitive history of Auschwitz and its victims in 17 languages. They help visitors coming from all around the world to understand this complicated topic using all the authentic objects and locations at hand. They walk through the historical sites, they use exhibitions, and, as a result, they keep the authentic stories of survivors alive by telling them to people.

Many visitors come to the Memorial prepared. Teachers and educational leaders understand the role of bringing their students to the historic site not only as a lesson of history but also one of civic education — as Auschwitz has been and will continue be a warning to humanity. But we also truly believe that many people who begin their visit as tourists later became messengers of remembrance, and that this happens thanks to experiencing the authenticity of the site as guided by educators. Visiting the former camp itself is a valuable personal experience which can teach and change people. The fact that visitors might initially attend the site as tourists does not change that.

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Can Auschwitz Be a Graveyard and a Tourist Destination?

krematorium-1-has-been-rebuilt-1484847651Menachem Rosensaft once wrote that “as much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate.” He further notes that “the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.” As we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we need to be vigilant.

Since my most recent visit to Auschwitz, in 2015, I have been particularly concerned that while its museum often uses the term “authentic experience,” visitors are exposed to a variety of nonauthentic experiences. To provide just a few examples, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the main gate is a reproduction; the Auschwitz I footprint actually extended into the current main parking lot and beyond; the gas chamber/crematorium (Krema I) usually shown at the end of the tour is a reproduction, and in Auschwitz II–Birkenau, the line of barracks (Section BIIA) upon entering to your right have been entirely rebuilt. To be fair, the guides will acknowledge this if asked, but the pressure of mass tourism means that they are rarely asked.

I have the utmost respect for the staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. They have an extraordinarily difficult job where literally every decision or official comment can quickly become controversial, yet they accept the challenge with grace, commitment and passion. The staff must navigate Polish politics, a huge increase in visitors severely straining the infrastructure and financial issues, and they must reconcile various stake-holder groups, each of whom have legitimate, though often conflicting, agendas.

But these convenient educational props can undermine their central aim if Holocaust deniers can accurately point to inconsistencies. And while the unprecedented growth in visitors to Auschwitz is in many ways a welcome development, that very surge is hastening the day when the museum’s senior staff, as well as foundation and council members, must decide if Auschwitz is simply an attraction to be checked off a tourist’s list or a sacred site as the location of the largest graveyard in the world created by the greatest crime in human history.

In his book “Dark Tourism and Crime,” Derek Dalton describes his fascination in Auschwitz from his teenage years, and the “lure” he felt to it. I am not Jewish, and have no family connections to the Shoah, but since I read a book on the prisoner uprising at Treblinka when I was 13, I’ve felt that same “lure.” My passionate interest in the Holocaust — and, in particular, Auschwitz — has led me to visit the camps on a number of occasions and study the history with more than touristic interest.

Auschwitz has come to represent the Holocaust for countless people like me worldwide, and that places a singular burden, responsibility and moral obligation on the museum. The victims and survivors unconditionally deserve historical accuracy in documenting the crimes, proper contextualization, absolute authenticity, respectful memorialization and the most up-to-date interpretations. But despite its best efforts, the museum is not succeeding in providing all this.

Historical accuracy is at times compromised by how various items are shown. The disturbing and powerful exhibition in Block Four with the hair of about 90,000 victims shown behind a long glass wall — along with similar displays of luggage and artificial limbs — do not make clear that the hair, limbs, and luggage were taken not there but at Birkenau. Also, the Gypsy-Roma experience predominantly unfolded in Birkenau Section BII, yet the excellent exhibit telling their story is in Auschwitz I. The critical historic importance of the large building where most prisoners first entered Auschwitz I and went through processing is lost due to its contemporary usage as a security checkpoint, bookstore, theater, cafeteria and group tour staging area.

If the Auschwitz complex of camps is indeed a sacred place deserving solemnity, reverence and reflection, then the immediate area just outside the actual camp (Auschwitz I) falls far short in signaling to visitors they are about to step on consecrated ground. The dilapidated parking lot with a small white trailer as the main (and only) ticket office also houses an ice cream vendor and a souvenir shop before visitors reach a main entrance in a sad state of disrepair. Neither solemn memorial nor authentic representation, arrival at Auschwitz is now just a shabby trap for the masses of dark tourists. Frankly, the victims and survivors deserve better.

The last example is the least comprehensible, most disheartening and, frankly, shocking. The Auschwitz II – Birkenau gatehouse — the Gate of Death — is arguably the most widely recognized building in the world, an iconic manifestation of pure evil. But today, the gatehouse contains a bookstore, restrooms, a small vending area, a rundown guard tower and storage rooms. Does using the gatehouse this way properly memorialize the thousands upon thousands of starving, freezing, emaciated and terrorized prisoners in their paper-thin uniforms and ill-fitting wooden clogs who went through this gate in the morning knowing that there was a good chance they would not return? How can this be the best use of a horrifying historical building that welcomed some 1.1 million victims to this camp of death?

Can Auschwitz be both a tourist attraction and a mass graveyard without making compromises that betray the memory of the victims? The decision needs to be made soon.

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German nationalist calls for end to Nazi guilt

Leading member of Alternative for Germany party says Berlin Holocaust memorial a ‘monument of shame’

2016-02-25_Plenum_im_Thüringer_Landtag_by_Olaf_Kosinsky-13-e1484703021503Aprominent member of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party wants to end the country’s decades-long tradition of acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past.

Bjoern Hoecke leads the party in the eastern state of Thuringia. He said Germany needs to perform a “180-degree turn” when it comes to remembering its past.

Hoecke said Tuesday that the Berlin memorial to the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust is a “monument of shame.” He told party supporters in the eastern city of Dresden that no other country would erect such a memorial in its capital and called instead for Germany to take a “positive” attitude toward its history.

Nazi Germany was responsible for the murder of more than 6 million Jews and other minorities before and during World War II.

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Unprecedented work underway to preserve Auschwitz

Conservators face challenge of preserving horrible reality of Nazi concentration camp over 70 years after it was built

POLAND-GERMANY-HISTORY-WWII-MUSEUMOSWIECIM, Poland (AFP) — Brick by brick, plank by plank, workers at the former Nazi German death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau carefully clean its barracks to preserve the Holocaust symbol for future generations.

“This is the largest preservation project in the history of the museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s unprecedented,” museum spokesman Pawel Sawicki told AFP.

Along with the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, the barracks bear witness to Nazi Germany’s killing of around 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, at this camp, which it built in 1940 in the southern city of Oswiecim after occupying Poland.

“Preserving a barrack requires a completely different approach than one used to preserve a church for example. There, the goal is to return the building to its original state, so its most beautiful state,” says site manager Ewa Cyrulik.

“Here, the goal is to leave everything unchanged. The biggest compliment for us is when someone says they can’t really see a difference afterwards,” she tells AFP.

The task is all the harder because these types of poorly constructed barracks have never been preserved before, according to the Auschwitz team.

“My colleagues in the building industry laughed when I told them what I was doing. They said it’d be easier to just tear down the wall and rebuild it brick by brick than to restore it the way we’re doing,” says Szymon Jancia, a construction expert at the site.

“We’re aware that people come here specifically to see authentic objects and buildings,” Cyrulik adds for her part.

Protected from the weather by tents 12 meters (39 feet) high, the two barracks under restoration number among the camp’s oldest.

Work on the barracks began in September 2015 and will continue for another couple of years, while the entire project will take more than a decade and cost millions of dollars.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is really two camps, located three kilometers (two miles) apart.

While Auschwitz has been subject to preservation work in the past, none of the brick barracks at Birkenau have been seriously restored before.

Only simple maintenance work was carried out to respond to critical repairs.

Birkenau’s buildings are much more fragile than those at Auschwitz, which were built long before Nazi Germany took them over and originally served as military barracks.

Birkenau’s buildings on the other hand were meant specifically for the camp and were built in a slapdash manner, using less robust materials.

Their walls are thin, barely the thickness of a brick, and have buckled in places because the roof is too heavy. The wooden frame is rotting. The foundations have been eroded by groundwater.

“It’s a miracle they’re still standing,” says Jancia.

In total, 45 brick buildings at Birkenau will undergo restoration work.

The team will preserve whatever parts are in good condition, and replace those that are in a poor state or threaten the integrity of the entire building.

“Whatever we replace has to be visible to the eye, so as not to be confused with the original,” Cyrulik says while pointing to layers of paint in a slightly different color.

Kneeling in a cramped hole, workers carefully remove earth to get at the foundations that have been weakened by groundwater.

They work by hand, without recourse to machines, as is the case elsewhere on-site.

Inside a nearby tent, they have built a six-meter-long model wall that is propped up by metal bars.

“It’s a wall we built using the same materials and featuring the same flaws as those in the actual barracks,” Jancia says.

“It lets us test preservation methods. The walls are held up by the very same car jacks used for changing a tyre.”

The entire project has so far cost 12 million zlotys (2.7 million euros, $2.9 million) in funding secured by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

Created in 2009, it manages the funds meant to preserve the site of the former Nazi German camp.

To date, donors have contributed 101 million euros, including 60 million from Germany, as well as big donations from the United States, Poland, France and Austria.

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Holocaust Museum Dinner in Philadelphia Demonstrates Power of Artifacts to Convey History

16 November 2016, Philly Dinner.At first glance, the wide-wale corduroy jacket in the box atop the tissue paper might be a gift for Dad or Grandpa — an L.L. Bean special he can wear as fall turns to winter. The cut, the color, the buttons, the pockets — they all look entirely familiar, like the brown corduroy jackets found in countless catalogues and department stores.

Without context, this jacket is a study in banality, as prosaic as they come.

But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to material culture. This particular jacket is, in fact, suffused with meaning, history and a life experience that diverged dramatically from the norm. If it represented banality at all, it was the banality of evil.

Last week, Michael and Peter Feuer, whose late father Otto was one of a small number of Jews to spend 12 years under Nazi rule and survive, presented their father’s brown corduroy jacket at the 2016 Philadelphia “What You Do Matters” Dinner of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The jacket, along with a gray-and-blue striped concentration camp uniform, were worn by Otto at Buchenwald, the last of three concentration camps in which he was imprisoned.

The Feuer family has now donated his clothing (along with other items) to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose collection of artifacts is expected to double in size in the next 10 years. Peter Feuer, who lives in Rydal, also donated $1 million to the in-progress David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation and Research Center, which will have climate-controlled environments, preservation equipment and highly specialized laboratories to house and conserve the collection.

Thirty-three Greater Philadelphia residents have helped that collection grow by donating personal items, and the “What You Do Matters” Dinner was held, in part, to thank them.

About 15 donor-survivors were able to attend, including Eve Przemyski, 93, who seemed a little chagrined about being honored in the evening’s affair.

“I’m not Jewish,” she said, then added, with a laugh, “but it’s not my fault!”

Przemyski gave the museum the diary she kept as a teenager, which she titled Behind the Barbed Wire: A Diary of a Year in a German POW Camp 1944-1945. Though she wrote it in her native Polish, she had it translated in the 1990s.

“It’s a very moving story about a teenage girl who lost it all,” her son-in-law, Jack McFadden, said proudly.

When Przemyski gave her diary to the museum in 2011, she also donated family photographs, identity cards, immigration documents and other ephemera that may be of use to families and researchers, especially given that Przemyski’s mother sheltered two Jewish women during the occupation. “They both survived,” Przemyski said.

Boris Altshtater, 78, who was born in the former Yugoslavia, also gave the museum many documents.

“I donated all kinds of stuff, but the most precious were the letters that my father sent me,” he said in heavily accented English. “They were written from Jasonovec concentration camp [in Croatia]. This was the only country in occupied Europe by Nazis that had their own concentration camps and their own guards and they did their own killing.”

Alshtater said his father was allowed to write 20 words in each letter.

“All he said, ‘I work in economy’ — I didn’t know what it meant — and, ‘send me biscuits and marmalade.’ No ‘how am I doing,’ not normal communication. It had sign of Jasonovec with stamp and date it was sent. And under the letter it was saying, ‘writing is the prize for good behavior.’ They killed him a year later.”

As a toddler, Altshtater was in two concentration camps himself — as well on the run with his family in the forest — but there’s much he doesn’t know about his own history. “My mother didn’t want to tell me anything,” he said, but the family did save photographs of the young Altshtater taken in the camps. Those are now in the museum’s collection.

Przemyski, Altshtater and the other survivor-donors were all praised effusively by the evening’s speakers, including Andres Abril, director of the museum’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office. As a slideshow of artifacts was displayed on video screens behind him, Abril said the museum’s success depended upon the power of these objects to illuminate personal histories.

“As the museum was being conceived, original artifacts were seen as a critical part of how we would share this history,” he said. “And in mid-construction, in the early ’90s, the very first artifact was lowered into the building. … It was as if we were placing into the museum the beating heart of what Elie Wiesel called ‘living memorial.’”

Artifacts, Abril added, “transformed the experience at the museum for millions of people, from a history lesson to something far more tangible, far more personal. … Every artifact represents a human being, a family, and therefore every artifact is also a memorial.”

A chair is not a chair, he said; it is Louisa’s chair that was given to her by her parents on her second birthday while in hiding. Even the smallest items, like a ring found in a mass grave, tell the stories of individuals. “These have become our treasures,” Abril said, “and while they have no intrinsic value, when they’re combined with the history and the humanity of their owners, they are transformed into timeless personal witnesses of history.”

The evening’s next speaker, Elaine Culbertson, has been using the museum’s treasures for many years as an educator.

The program director of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program, Culbertson is the daughter of two survivors who heard many stories of tragedy and triumph from her parents and their survivor friends growing up. She became a teacher in the Philadelphia school system, but at the time she didn’t teach the Holocaust because it wasn’t part of the curriculum. Then one day something happened to change her mind.

“When I heard a boy in my class tell another boy that he was going to buy a leather jacket and he hoped he could ‘Jew the guy down,’ I realized that my African-American students — who assured me they knew no Jews, not recognizing that I was Jewish — had no knowledge of any prejudice other than the prejudice directed against them,” she recalled. “That began my search for materials to teach students about the Holocaust.”

In the process of educating herself beyond her family history, she was struck by the weight of historical objects: “The extraordinary power of a baby’s dress in a glass case at Auschwitz. Or a bit of rouge a woman used to redden her cheeks to pass the selection. Or a Star of David that was fashioned out of a tin plate. These things were palpable,” she said. “Who could not be moved by seeing these things and connecting them to real people?”

When she became a teacher of other teachers, Culbertson took them to the museum and had them choose an object that would illuminate history for their students.

“The one that stops the discussion is the shoes,” Culbertson said of the exhibit of victims’ footwear confiscated at Majdanek, “because that is the one [exhibit] that is about individuals more than any other, and that is the one that invites personal stories to become the focus.”

The next speaker also remarked upon the power of the shoes. Rebecca Dupas, a Washington, D.C., native, first visited the museum as a high school student. Now the museum’s coordinator of community partnerships, youth and community initiatives, Dupas said after she saw the shoes as a teenager, “it hit me — the power of those shoes to remind me that this is not necessarily a story of millions, but a story of one person millions and millions and millions of times. The shoes made the story very individual to me, and it is a feeling and lesson I will never forget.”

Last summer Dupas worked with nine students who also found artifacts that resonated for them.

“For me it was the shoes; for them it was the milk can,” she said. One student said the milk can reminded her that these were regular people with regular families. Another said the milk can was important because it wasn’t a replica, because it was real. “Artifacts are extremely important in our ability to connect to the history.”

Dupas then read a poem, “An Unlikely Voice,” about her experience as an African-American woman who chooses to serve as a Holocaust educator. “In speaking for one, I speak for all,” she said. “I must bear witness, and silence can never be my choice.”

The night’s final speaker was Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. Rosenbaum, a Penn alum, has spent his career pursuing and prosecuting Nazi war criminals, including several who made their lives in Philadelphia. He spoke of the role artifacts play as forensic evidence, without which he could not do his job.

Though the evening was replete with video testimonies and fascinating speakers, there was a sort of reverential awe that was reserved for Otto Feuer’s garments — including that regular, old corduroy jacket.

At the end of the night, attendees were welcomed to the front of the room to see the both the jacket and uniform up close. As they crowded around and peered into the boxes, it was clear: Words and pictures tell us a great deal, but there is nothing that compares with survivor artifacts to convey the experience real people had during the Holocaust — a world event that, without this material testimony, would be too horrific to believe.

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‘Argentine’ man splurges at Nazi relics auction

Mystery buyer spends over 600,000 euros on Third Reich memorabilia, including a set of Hermann Goering’s silken underwear

nazi-itemsBERLIN — A buyer who said he came from Argentina spent over 600,000 euros on Nazi memorabilia, including one of Adolf Hitler’s uniform jackets, at a controversial auction in Germany, a report said Monday.

The mystery buyer, dressed in dark clothes and wearing a baseball cap, spent 275,000 euros ($312,000) on the jacket alone and 3,000 euros for a set of Hermann Goering’s silken underwear, among over 50 items he purchased, reported Bild daily.

Using the number “888,” the man outbid others on most items and dominated the Munich auction, reported Bild, which had sent an undercover reporter to the event that was formally closed to the press following a public outcry.

The number evokes the neo-Nazi code “88” that marks the eighth letter of the alphabet and stands for the banned greeting “Heil Hitler.”

Last week the Central Council of Jews in Germany had appealed to the auction house Hermann Historica to cancel the event, charging it was “scandalous and disgusting” to make money with Nazi relics in such an auction.

Bild reported that the room was filled with “young couples, elderly men, and muscular guys with shaved heads and tribal tattoos.”

The top bidder also bought the brass container that Goering, the founder of the Gestapo secret police and air force chief, used to kill himself with hydrogen cyanide two hours before his scheduled execution in 1946 in Nuremberg.

When the Bild reporter asked the top bidder who he was, the man reportedly replied in Spanish-accented English that he came “from Argentina” and had bought the items “for a museum,” but declined to give his name.

The items — sold under the theme “Hitler and the Nazi grandees – a look into the abyss of evil” — were formerly owned by the late US army medic John K. Lattimer, who was in charge of monitoring the health of Nazi war criminals on trial in Nuremberg.

German law prohibits the open display and distribution of Nazi objects, slogans and symbols, but not their purchase or ownership, for example by researchers and collectors.

Numerous Nazi fugitives fled to Argentina after World War II, including Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann and death camp doctor Josef Mengele.

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Mississippi Holocaust memorial gets $25K — plus 1.5M pennies

(JTA) – A memorial in Mississippi to child victims of the Holocaust is getting a $25,000 boost from a Southern hospital network.

The planned memorial in Hernando, a city in northern Mississippi located about 30 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., will hold 1.5 million pennies donated by local schools and businesses to commemorate the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis.

The $25,000 gift to the Unknown Child Holocaust Remembrance Penny Project is from Baptist Memorial Health Care, The Associated Press reported.

Designed by architect Doug Thornton of Architectural and Engineering Resources for Construction, the memorial will feature a spiral path leading to six wall sections forming a fractured Star of David that will be covered by the 1.5 million pennies. Inside the star will be a bronze sculpture designed by Rick Wienecke called “The Unknown Child.”

The project’s anticipated cost is about $2 million.

Thornton said the project has yet to obtain the land on which to build the memorial.

“Like many things associated with Israel and the Jewish people, land always seemed to be an issue, isn’t it?” Thornton told JTA. “We’re waiting for that promised land.”

Students at Horn Lake Middle School came up with the idea for the memorial and raised the 1.5 million pennies in the 2009-10 school year while studying the Holocaust.

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