Auschwitz. Few places evoke more powerful associations than the Nazi concentration and extermination camp in southern Poland at which an estimated 1.1 million people — 90 percent of them Jewish — perished.

What many people don’t realize, however, is for centuries prior to World War ll, Jews and non-Jews lived side by side in Oświęcim, the Polish name for the town of Auschwitz.

The new exhibition, “Remembering Auschwitz: History, Holocaust, Humanity,” which opens March 5 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, gives visitors an in-depth view of Auschwitz before, during and after the Holocaust. It was curated by JMM collection manager Joanna Church.

“Auschwitz is the window for us to explore the concept of memory and look at this history more than 70 years later,” says Deborah Cardin, the JMM’s deputy director of programs and development. “We tend to think of Poland as a very segregated place. Until the Nazi invasion, it was a place where Jewish life really flourished. At one time, Auschwitz was a symbol of tolerance.”

‘Beautiful Stories’

“Remembering Auschwitz” is comprised of four small exhibitions, none of which have been shown together before. The JMM will offer workshops, films, speakers and educational programing to support the exhibition.

Visitors begin their tour centuries before the Shoah with “A Town Known as Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Community.” First shown at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial of the Holocaust, this exhibition depicts the town’s history through historical photographs and records from the 16th century through the post-war period.

“There are some beautiful stories of friendships between Jews and non-Jews,” says Cardin.

Blueprints of the concentration camp, its gas chambers and crematoria form the basis for “Architecture of Murder: The Auschwitz-Birkenau Blueprints,” an exhibition on loan from the American Society for Yad Vashem. A single camp when built in 1940, the Auschwitz complex grew to encompass three main camps and 40 sub-camps.

Included is a 20-square-foot wooden replica of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Andrew Altman, a Baltimore City College junior. Andrew built the replica as a memorial to his late great-grandfather, Auschwitz survivor Edward “Yehuda” Biderman.

Andrew, 16, spent six months poring over blueprints and aerial photographs to create the model, which will become part of the JMM’s permanent collection. “I think my great-grandfather would be happy I made this,” he says.

When he recently brought the model to school, Andrew says he was stunned that only about 30 of the 300 students there ever heard of Auschwitz. “A tragedy like the Holocaust needs to be remembered,” he says.

Giving Voice to the ‘Unspeakable’

The third exhibition, “Loss and Beauty: Photographs by Keron Psillas,” serves as a chilling reminder of the Nazi genocide. A photographer and writer based in Portugal, Psillas spent months in Eastern Europe photographing concentration camps and documenting “personal journeys during the unspeakable horror that was the Nazi Holocaust.”

Commissioned by the JMM, the final exhibition features an art installation, “Holocaust Memory Reconstruction: A Sacred Culture Rebuilt,” incorporating the stories of such local Holocaust survivors as Morris Rosen, Leo Bretholtz, and Howard and Esther Kaidanow.

The JMM worked with California-based artist Lori Shocket last summer on a series of workshops for local survivors and their families. Participants used family photographs, documents and memorabilia to create collages displayed in the installation, and eventually turned into a book sold in the JMM’s gift shop.

The late Steven Edmond Vogel was an Auschwitz survivor whose son, Dr. James E. Vogel of Owings Mills, created a collage. Vogel’s story is told in the film “Steve,” which will be screened during the exhibition’s run.

“My father was taken from Budapest in 1944 and put in Auschwitz,” says Vogel. “He was on the death march to Mauthausen [concentration camp] with his mother.”

When they arrived at Auschwitz, Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi “Angel of Death,” directed Vogel’s grandmother to the crematorium. Vogel’s father was forced into hard labor but survived the camp.

Cardin says “Remembering Auschwitz” has an important message for Jews and non-Jews.

“Part of our mission is to teach about immigration history and to interpret the American Jewish experience,” she says. “For many survivors, the impetus is to use their story to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself that we can do better.”

“Remembering Auschwitz” will be on exhibit through May 29 at the JMM, 15 Lloyd St. For information, visit
jewishmuseummd.org.

Jill Yesko is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

Photo by Keron Psillas titled “Journey,” of the last remnant of the original train tracks leading into the Terezin Ghetto in the Czech Republic

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