By Dominic Katransky
A new exhibition at the College, “A Town Known as Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Jewish Community,” had its opening reception in the MCC Studio Theater Gallery on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 2 p.m.
Terrence Corrigan, a history professor at MCC and one of the chief organizers of the event, briefly addressed the audience at the reception, and introduced Shiri Sandler. Corrigan said that putting this exhibit together was a collaborative effort which included a lot of work and many people, especially thanking Anne Hogan, Chairperson of Visual, Performing and Media Arts.
Corrigan said, “The exhibit here does an amazing job of rescuing history, of saving history from being lost. It’s about Auschwitz, but it’s also about the culture, the beautiful, thriving culture and people, that came before Auschwitz, and their experiences as well. When combined with this, it makes a most impressive, most significant, exhibit.”
He said, “If you’ve been following what’s been going on in Poland, there’s some interesting stuff going on there, scary stuff, especially censorship of history and censorship of historical discussion. That’s why exhibits like this need to keep being produced, and exhibits like this need to keep going around the country, [and around] other countries: to keep this historical discussion going — so we keep these ideas, these people, these cultures alive — and so we don’t forget.”
Shiri Sandler, curator and designer at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, was the keynote speaker at the reception; she provided a detailed presentation of the history of Oswiecim, followed by taking questions from the audience. Her grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust, inspired Sandler’s interest in sharing Jewish history.
In addition to emphasizing the importance of connecting with the humanity of the people from Auschwitz, Sandler said how history often becomes misleading.
“The story of Jewish lives gets lost, often, in the story of Jewish deaths when we’re talking about the holocaust. These people were not numbers. They were not masses. They were individuals just like us, and they had incredibly rich, meaningful experiences before they got caught up in one of the greatest cataclysms of their time,” said Sandler.
The presentation was accompanied by images used to convey a more comprehensive look into Oswiecim, and Sandler said that, although images and stories of Auschwitz are usually about a camp, this tends to dehumanize the people, and there is much more to the story. Sandler said, “Auschwitz was a town. It was a home. People lived their lives there. They loved. They built families. They built businesses. It was a whole world before it became a camp, and even the name Auschwitz meant something before it became a camp — and we wanted to tell that rich story.”
Among the diverse crowd attending the reception was Priya Singh, MCC student and co-creator of the Genocide Awareness club. As she examined the images in the gallery, Singh said, “People coming to the exhibit can learn things they don’t necessarily learn in classrooms. In classrooms you get limited information, or it’s on a time basis, but here you get personal examples. You get to see people’s stories, you get to see the pictures of them, and you get to connect with them, rather than the struggle. You get to see things, and how they’ve affected people, rather than how they’ve affected a nation, and it becomes more personal that way, rather than it being learned in a book or on a piece of paper.”
“Come see it because it’s only here on campus for a limited time; it’s here only until March 9, and then it’s gone,” said Corrigan.
On loan from the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the traveling exhibit portrays the Jewish history behind Oswiecim, Poland — referred to as Auschwitz by the Germans — and illuminates the people, places and buildings from the town’s obscured past. Unique insights are offered into the atrocities wreaked upon the Jewish community, yet the exhibit also brings to life a vibrant, burgeoning town, not yet touched by the shadow of impending devastation.
Adorning the walls throughout the college’s gallery is an assemblage of historical photographs and expository content delineating the timeline of the town: from being a mid-sized market town in the 1300s, to the thriving golden era (when the Jewish community was flourishing and living harmoniously with their non-Jewish neighbors), to the German occupation of the town and finally the post-war era.
Visitors to the gallery will discover a multi-cultural pre-war society of friendly coexistence, the reasons Nazis chose to occupy the town, details of the camp development and what happened inside the town after the Soviets liberated it in 1945.
The golden era of the town, however, is the crucial facet and at the heart of the exhibit. In this time — prior to the Second World War— Jews and non-Jews prospered side by side peacefully in civil life, military service and political administration.
There are depictions in the gallery of close friends, classmates, business partners, families and workers, all engaged in the events and activities of everyday life, unaware they are on the precipice of a catastrophe.
It will remain on display until March 9 and is hosted by the College’s Holocaust and Human Rights Center.
The exhibit is open in the MCC Studio Theater Gallery, from Mondays to Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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