Book Review: Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.
Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes you free. The ironclad phrase looms overhead, the entrance to Auschwitz. The air weighs heavily on the death camp and only chimney ruins remain of the crematoria sites, skeletal specters themselves. The concentration camp became synonymous with genocidal eugenics, but amongst the 1.1 million deaths are individual narratives that cannot be forgotten. A young family cannot be disregarded when the parents’ wedding rings lay together behind exhibition cases with instructions to meld them together because the family was torn apart in life.
In Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away., author Robert Van Pelt writes to prevent another abhorrence like the Holocaust. The catalog works in tandem with Van Pelt’s mobile exhibition, currently showcased in New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. Over 650 artifacts, ranging from handmade charms to camp blueprints, culminate in the most comprehensive attempt to understand one of Western history’s greatest catastrophes. One that was subtle, concealed even after prisoners were liberated. And one that could can happen again if humanity is not vigilant in upholding our inalienable rights.
The artifacts and personal histories featured in the collection encapsulate the quiet strength of a marginalized and dehumanized people. Sixteen-year-old Ruth Grunberger fashioned a comb out of metal fragments, promising herself she'd have hair and freedom one day. Another young girl, Zlatka Pitluk, made a heart-shaped booklet for her friend Fania Fainer’s birthday, filled with birthday wishes from friends. A painting done by a Red Army soldier titled No Words conveys his immediate mortification upon walking into Auschwitz, depicting a woman with her head in her hands. The subject conceals her face but reveals the soldier’s shame of being willfully ignorant to such depravity.
These artifacts immediately remind us that Germans turned a blind eye until they could no longer, while these prisoners desperately attempted to maintain some semblance of normalcy. These moments of hope found within the brutalization and degradation of these victims feel even more poignant, reminding us of our insatiable human desire to simply survive. Each item speaks to personal stories within an overwhelming account of mass extinction. Letters, paintings, clothing, and family photographs are peppered throughout the book, creating intimate moments of personhood between reader and victim. Prisoners yearned for reminders of their own humanity, grasping for purchase in a nefarious and barbarous environment. What makes Van Pelt’s composite of the concentration camp so remarkable is its holistic nature.
The narratives include those from Roma, Jews, Sonderkommandos (prisoners working in the crematoria), Red Army soldiers, and more. While considering the morality of the camp’s architects, the extensive geographical and historical context may not appeal to everyone’s sympathies but it remains imperative to comprehend how easily society prioritizes nationalism and complacency. Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. serves as a mechanism for memory and prevention, while denouncing the notion that human bipartition is inherent. It tackles the gruesome alongside the intimate and illuminates the dangers of fear-mongering and passivity that feel all too familiar.