Before Auschwitz was the notorious concentration camp where more than 1 million Jews were murdered it was Oświęcim, a thriving market town of about 14,000 — more than half of whom were Jews.
It’s Oświęcim and its complicated legacy that is at the center of a new exhibit from the Jewish Museum of Maryland called “Remembering Auschwitz: History. Holocaust. Humanity.” It opens Sunday in the Samson, Rossetta and Sadie B. Feldman Gallery.
The full exhibit brings together four smaller ones in the museum’s first Holocaust exhibit in more than a decade. It starts with an exhibit from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, “A Town Known as Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Jewish Community,” followed by “Architecture of Murder: The Auschwitz Birkenau Blueprints,” then “Loss and Beauty: Photographs by Keron Psillas” and, to end the exhibit, stories from local survivors called “The Holocaust Memory Reconstruction Project.”
“We’ve chosen to really emphasize the idea of remembering and commemorating,” said Deborah Cardin, the museum’s deputy director for programs and development, who spearheaded this exhibit.
“A Town Known as Auschwitz” starts off the exhibit, with the early history of Oświęcim played out in written descriptions, photos, maps and stories of the Jewish families who lived there. In its heyday in the late 19th century to the pre-war years, the townspeople, both Jewish and non-Jewish, coexisted peacefully and, for the most part, happily.
“It was actually a fairly well-integrated community,” Cardin said as she led the JT on a preview tour of the exhibit. “Which isn’t to say there weren’t challenges.”
Once Oświęcim was annexed by the Third Reich in 1939 in its bid to establish what it felt were the rightful boundaries of the German empire, however, Jewish residents started being deported, with 90 percent ending up at the Auschwitz camp.
Blueprints of that camp, photos of construction and a three-dimensional model makeup the second part of the exhibit, “Architecture of Murder,” which is located in a smaller room — “a gallery within a gallery,” as Cardin put it. If those contemplating the exhibit didn’t already know the gruesome history of Auschwitz, the preliminary plans and construction photos would look entirely conventional.
“One of the points is that Auschwitz was really constructed by ordinary professionals,” Cardin said. “It was really the intent that turned it into a camp of death and destruction.”
After the two Auschwitz-centric parts of the exhibit, the final two pieces are meant to show attendees the stories of survival and hope — seeing the present through the lens of the past.
Photographer Keron Psillas has created a collection called “Loss and Beauty,” full of photos in which she composited two images into one, often reflecting, as Psillas said, “a full story.” The images come from trips she took to Eastern European World War II sites such as concentration camps, and attempting to grapple with the contemporary beauty of places with very dark pasts.
“I had the whole time this question of how do I reconcile what is with what was,” she told the JT.
The final, and potentially most individually affecting, piece of the exhibit is the stories from local survivors. The museum worked with artist Lori Shocket’s “The Human Element Project,” making collages from photos and artifacts brought in by 91 different families in a series of a dozen or so workshops.
From names like Heller, Pasternak and Rosenbaum to Rubenstein, Zippert and Friedman, these are the stories the Baltimore Jewish community commemorate — whether it was a personal story or that of a parent or grandparent.
“A lot of them have given oral histories, but this is a different medium,” Cardin said. “And we found that sometimes families hadn’t even heard some of the stories brought out by reconstructing their lives in this way.”
The wall of 91 plaques of survivor stories is accompanied by quotes on the wall from a few of them. One in particular seemed to sum up the theme of the whole exhibit: “we must remember the past, live in the present and hope for a peaceful tomorrow.”
Read the March 17 JT for a cover story on the exhibit. For more information and hours, go to jewishmuseummd.org.