Ruth Grunberger was 16 years old when she stepped off a cattle car at Auschwitz in the dead of night in May 1944. She disembarked with nearly 100 other Jewish people, including her parents and her seven siblings, who had made the three-day, 250-mile trip from their hometown of Munkács – then part of Hungary, where they had spent weeks imprisoned in the basement of a brick factory – to the concentration and extermination camp, located in the suburbs of the city of Oświęcim, in the southern part of German-occupied Poland.
At the entrance to Auschwitz, Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was one of the physicians who – with “a flick of the cane clasped in a gloved hand”, according to his biographer Gerald Posner – granted life or death to the estimated 1.3 million people who arrived from across Europe. Mengele directed Grunberger’s five siblings and her mother, Emma, to the left, where the gas chambers waited for the estimated 900,000 people who would die inside. He sent Grunberger, her 18-year-old sister, Manci, and their 16-year-old cousin, Edith, to the right, towards a future where forced labor was the only certainty. Mengele also sent Grunberger’s 20-year-old brother, Asher, and her father, David, to work, but Grunberger never saw them again.
Officers from the Schutzstaffel – the Nazi paramilitary organization also known as the SS – ordered the women who Mengele spared to strip naked so they could shave and shear their head and body hair. Grunberger watched the tufts of her brown braids fall to the ground, the last remnants of her girlhood settling on the floor to be swept away.
“I didn’t think we were human any more,” she said.
During the next eight months she spent in Auschwitz, plus the four months the Nazis forced her to work in factories throughout Germany, Grunberger held out hope for a future where she would be free to grow her hair back. While being forced to make airplane parts in an Auschwitz factory, she created the only possession she would hold on to throughout her entire ordeal: a tiny metal comb, less than two inches tall, with six skinny teeth that she hoped would one day hold her hair in place.
“I saw some scraps of metal, and I made myself the comb,” she said. “I figured, my hair is going to grow back, and I’ll need a bobby pin.”
Today, that comb is one of more than 700 objects and 400 photographs and drawings on view at the newly opened, largest ever Auschwitz exhibition in North America, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away, on view until 3 January, traces the rise of antisemitism and nazism throughout history and the phases of the Holocaust with a focus on Auschwitz, where Nazis murdered more than 1.1 million people, including nearly 1 million Jews and tens of thousands of Polish political prisoners, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, and gay and disabled people. The exhibit – which features objects on loan from more than 20 institutions and private collections around the world, the majority of which are on view for the first time ever in North America – aims to prompt visitors to consider how the largest mass murder site in human history came to exist, and how genocide subsequently unfolded there.
“Auschwitz didn’t start with gas chambers. That is only the very final step of a very long process,” said the exhibition’s director, Luis Ferreiro. “Hatred doesn’t build overnight. We need to explain the road to Auschwitz so people understand how its existence was possible.”
The exhibition highlights the centuries-old roots of antisemitism, including the 14th-century murders of thousands of European Jews, who Christians blamed for the plague that killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe. Two hundred years later, in a precursor to one of the Nazis’ earliest practices of persecution, the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand I signed a 1551 proclamation, on view in the exhibition, requiring German Jews to wear yellow circles on their clothing to distinguish themselves from Christians.
The post-first world war resurgence of antisemitism is also on display: the exhibit recounts how the Nazis drummed up support for their cause by blaming Jews for Germany’s bankruptcy, hyperinflation and high unemployment rates. By the 1930s, the Nazis built their earliest concentration camps to confine their political opponents; in 1935, the Nuremberg laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship status. And five years later, the SS commander, Heinrich Himmler, gave orders to establish Auschwitz.
The exhibit deconstructs the death camp in part through the objects that constituted it, beginning with the hundreds of everyday items – hairbrushes, eyeglasses, kitchenware – that people packed in the worn leather baggage they brought with them. Those artifacts represent the last fragments of the lives they left behind, and the utter unpredictability of what they would encounter, according to Ferreiro.
“Their university degrees were taken, their jobs were denied, their bank accounts were stolen – everything was taken away. Those are the only things that they could place inside a suitcase,” he said. “Why would someone take a mirror or a brush to shave? They were expecting life to continue.”
Upon arrival, they traded their clothing and the quotidian objects of their old lives for new ones featured in the exhibition: a striped jacket and pants set, and a pair of wooden clogs. Other artifacts on display used to carry out mass torture and murder indicate what the theorist Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”: a rope whip SS officers used to beat people, a gas mask and a tin that held Zyklon B, the pesticide officials dropped down air shafts into the gas chambers to kill the people packed inside.
Like Grunberger, people coped with the horror around them in part by fashioning and taking refuge in their own objects of resistance, some of which are on view in the exhibit, including a Star of David necklace made from shoelaces, a tin engagement ring a woman hid under her tongue from an SS officer, and the trumpet that musician Louis Bannet used to entertain the Nazis for nearly two years, until Soviet forces liberated the camp in 1945.
Ferreiro – who is also the director of Musealia, a Spanish company dedicated to creating museum exhibitions – first conceived of the idea for the show nearly a decade ago after reading Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s 1946 account of how he survived three years in Auschwitz and Dachau, the Nazi’s first concentration camp, established in southern Germany in 1933. Ferreiro was inspired by Frankl’s attempt to understand the Holocaust through the psychology of its perpetrators and its victims, he said.
“With this topic it’s very easy to make people cry, but it’s more difficult to make people think and reflect,” Ferreiro said. “Our aim [with the exhibit] is to actually ask questions about ourselves.”
Over the next seven years, Ferreiro and a team of Holocaust historians, including the renowned Auschwitz expert Dr Robert Jan van Pelt, worked with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to conceptualize the exhibit. It debuted in 2017 at Madrid’s Arte Canal Exhibition Centre, where it was extended twice and drew more than 600,000 visitors, and it will travel throughout the US through at least 2022, according to Ferreiro. He characterized the show as a timely antidote to the rising tide of antisemitism around the world, and said the objects give voice to the millions of those who are not here to testify to what they experienced at Auschwitz.
“Every time that a visitor comes and listens to the voices of those artifacts and the stories that we tell, it’s a victory against hatred.”
This article was amended on 15 May 2019. Viktor Frankl was Austrian, not Australian as stated in an earlier version. It was further amended to note that Munkács in 1944 was part of Hungary, not Czechoslovakia, as we originally said.