The Task of Memory

From a young age, any child receiving a Jewish education is taught the history and lessons of the Holocaust. For those who don’t have survivors in their bloodlines, visits to the Holocaust Museum in Washington or talks from local survivors make the horror even more tangible.

While I consider myself lucky that none of my immediate family perished in the Holocaust, I do know that at least one of my ancestors came to the United States after pogroms in his hometown. He could have been one of six million.

It’s that kind of context that made the lessons of history all the more real to me. And if that’s not the mission of the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s newly opened exhibit, “Remembering Auschwitz: History. Holocaust. Humanity.” — the subject of Hannah Monicken’s cover story this week — it’s certainly one of the outcomes of the multifaceted experience.

The exhibit, split into four parts, captures the history of Oswiecim, the thriving market town that would later be home to the infamous concentration camp. Pre-war, about half of the town’s 14,000 residents were Jewish. Another part of the exhibit details the construction of Auschwitz.

Already we are forced to think more deeply about how a half-Jewish town came to house one of the most vicious of the camps in which more than one million Jews were killed.

Photographer Keron Psillas created composites that juxtapose the beauty of World War II historic sites, including the camps, with their horrific pasts. And the final piece of the exhibit are collages from artist Lori Shocket’s “The Holocaust Memory Reconstruction Project,” in which survivors, or descendants of survivors, tell the stories of their journeys.

It’s exhibits like this that remain crucial in passing down the stories of the Holocaust — the horror of the concentration camps and the triumphs of survivors and their families. The interest of history buffs will be piqued by the history of Oswiecim, the engineers by blueprints of Auschwitz and the artists by the composite photographs.

And perhaps most importantly, the collages humanize the Holocaust and the Jewish people’s triumph over evil. “Survivor” is no longer a concept, it’s your friend whose grandparents narrowly survived Auschwitz; it’s your neighbor whose parents were in line for the gas chambers when they were liberated.

These husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, grandparents are living proof of Jewish resilience and continuation. These exhibits will become even more crucial once all the survivors have passed.

And while the transformation of a town with 7,000 Jews to a camp that killed an exponentially larger number is painstakingly heartbreaking, one might just leave the exhibit feeling hopeful.

As Shocket put it: “You see those who triumphed and survived, that they continued to live on. And I think that’s a perfect end to the story.”

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