Probably because it was close by and in New York City, I went to see “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” the big exhibition now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and then I went again. There are two parts to the exhibition. First is a thorough historical lesson, introducing the history of the Holocaust, the history of Oscwiecim and the history of the Auschwitz camps. This was the central spine of a travelling exhibition meant to serve broadly as a history lesson for a broad viewing public, including young people and non-Jews. Some of the prints, posters, drawings, photographs were original, but most were facsimiles created for the exhibition. They tell the large story. The second and more vital component part of the exhibition were the original object-artifacts from the site. These are on loan, mostly from what is officially the “Memorial Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau: Former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp.”
I went primarily interested in the artifact-objects. I went back a second time, because the first time I lost my grip, as it were, not sure what kind of pictures to take, of which kind of items. While they were not my primary interest, not in general and not for this blogpost, I spent some time on my first visit with the facsimile images because of their inherent interest; and in the process, I lost focus on the artifact-objects and, wisely, put the camera away. I went by myself back a second time, perhaps unwisely, to take more digital photos with something that might resemble a more clear focus.
This is what confused me about the artifact-objects on view at the Museum. In his book on Holocaust icons, Oren Stier writes about the emplacement and displacement of such artifact-objects when put on view. His interest concerns the felt public need for “authenticity” of the actual or “genuine” Holocaust artifact as a tactile object that puts the viewer in some sort of real and/or imagined contact with the event itself. Noting the sense of “aura” such objects convey or seem to convey, Stier’s analysis is particularly attuned to fetishization, reproducibility, monumentality, mystification, and mythologization (Holocaust Icons: Symbolizing The Shoah in History and Memory, p.38).
My own confusion has to do with the monumentality of a Holocaust object.
Maybe one expects everything to look bigger, to be bigger. As Stier notes, the placing of even ordinary Holocaust artifacts conveys or is intended to convey the “enormity” of the Holocaust itself (p.35). It’s the metonymy that is the confusing thing. In relation to the scale of the event conveyed by the photographs, posters, wall mounts, and wall texts that form the narrative spine of the exhibition, the artifact-objects are, to a piece, physically small. That they are supposed to but cannot really stand in for the whole they are meant to reflect has to do with the problem of physical scale.
A case in point and as per Stier is the cattle car placed on view outside of the Museum. Its function as a Holocaust icon is intended to initiate the viewer into the exhibition inside. But as looked at solely as a visual object, the cattle car on view is a actually a very small physical thing, much smaller than what one might have otherwise imagined. Looked at this way, all the objects on view had the same diminutive character. Small in size are the modest personal effects seized from the victims at their arrival to the camp. So too is the bunkbed from the Auschwitz KL, a soup caldron and wooden ladle, parts of the machinery pieces from the crematoria. Small too is the wheel carriage of a train and the concrete fence posting, both of which are exhibited inside the first main gallery along with a single red shoe in a glass vitrine. Expecting something monumental, one comes up against small artifact-objects.
Confusing at the exhibition is what’s confusing in life. This has to do with how objects in the center of the room are overwhelmed in relation to the photographs and wall-texts hanging behind and around them. The small objects are part of an enormous story that towers over the person confronted by the enormous historical arc of the Holocaust, its memory, and memorialization.
Confusing too is what happens when these objects are professionally photographed or placed in a room. Insofar as they fill up the entire frame of a photograph, one has already lost sight of the small size of the photographed objects; insofar as they are grouped together en masse to emblematize genocide, one loses sight of the individual object; insofar as the object is photographed in isolation, there is the problem of fetishization.
Confusing is the range of value between the very small size of the physical object juxtaposed to the very large as a historical and mental phenomenon, the ordinariness of objects that would otherwise not command a second of anyone’s attention. Setting aside questions about the aura of distance, this is a visual puzzle, not a metaphysical or ethical enigma.
Thinking back on the exhibition, one walks away from these kind of things kind of frightened, and a little repelled, as one continues to think about them. This too is a Holocaust object lesson.