Christopher Pratt (cpratt) wrote,
Christopher Pratt

A few words on the most impressive exhibit at Auschwitz museum: Belgium

When I visited Auschwitz this week, I took care to visit every exhibit at the museum (the camp buildings each contained a museum, and in the case of national exhibits, typically two museums, one on each floor). It was clear that guided tour groups concentrated only on the best known, most viscerally unsettling exhibits such as the room full of human hair or the wall against which prisoners were lined up to be shot; me, I'm also fascinated by how museums are constructed in order to communicate, well, something to their audiences.

At Auschwitz, the exhibits range from the fairly old, outdated, and shabby (Israel, unfortunately; some of the pictures, disturbingly, were defaced as well) to the brand new, spiffy, and very "modern" (the new exhibit documenting crimes against Sinti and Roma, apparently largely funded by the German government). Some of them were faintly ludicrous (Italy, for example, gave nothing save for a short poem by Italo Calvino and some completely inane "fabric sculpture" that whirled around the catwalk; it felt more like a failed attraction at EPCOT than an appropriate memorial). Here, have a look:

When I reached the Belgian exhibit, though, I was floored. This really, really spoke to me. At the beginning - after you climb up the stairs from the French exhibit on the ground floor - you see this:

This is Alexander von Falkenhausen, the German official responsible for governing occupied Belgium. He is the person who signed the orders to transport Jews, Roma, and Sinti to Auschwitz. Given that up until this point all of the documentation I had seen had generally made only vague references to Germany, Hitler, Nazis, or (occasionally) Mengele, it was sobering to realize that "ordinary people" such as von Falkenhausen were also directly responsible for carrying out Nazi crimes. It's important to remember that it's impossible for one man to murder six million Jews without an army of collaborators, and although it may be uncomfortable for us to understand this, I'd like to think we can all be more fully cognizant in our own individual roles in any evil that may be unfolding in the world.

Anyhow: back to the exhibit. As fj pointed out, the descriptive text on the panels is written in the present tense; the exhibit begins by documenting the repressive laws against the Jews that were brought into force in Belgium starting in 1940. Each law received its own panel and exact description of the crimes it brought about; for example, the law on the wearing of the yellow star for Jews was written so that they had to be sewn on, not just safety-pinned, so you could never get away from it, even while you were at home with your family.

Here's another excellent example from the exhibit:

Before the Germans began deporting and murdering children, they excluded them from school. Personally, I think this gets the idea across loud and clear: the Gothic script and the red ink is both appropriate and dramatic. The picture I posted of Simon is in this section, chronologically in order, and of course describes the ultimate fate of these schoolchildren.

Finally, the last room of the exhibit is filled with what I suppose I should describe as stelae: tall, imposing panels that are all laid out identically. Here's the first one in the series:

At the top: T1, for transport no. 1 from Belgium to Auschwitz. The small square in the upper right hand corner of the panel is a map of the Auschwitz area; marked in red are the final destinations of the transport (e.g. the Judenrampe, the gas chambers, the ovens). Next up are dates: departure from Mechelen detention center in Belgium and arrival at Auschwitz.

The vast majority of the space is of course given over to the picture and name of someone on the transport (in the two pictures I'll post here, these are siblings).

Finally, there are further details at the bottom of the panel. Here is the legend of those:

Given that this is hard to read, I'll sum it up here:

  • Number of deportees who left the assembly camp in Mechelen
  • Number of deportees gassed upon arrival
  • Number registered at Auschwitz
  • Not sure what this means
  • Number of survivors

And finally, here is another of the panels:

999 left Belgium. None survived.

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