The Auschwitz exhibition is everything an Auschwitz exhibition should be. It is thorough, professional, tasteful, engaging, comprehensive, clear. It displays more than 700 original artifacts from the Auschwitz site museum and collections around the world. It corrects every annoying minor flaw in every other Holocaust exhibition I have ever seen. It does absolutely everything right. And it made me never want to go to another one of these exhibitions ever again.
The exhibition checks all the boxes. There are wall texts and artifacts explaining what Judaism is. Half a room describes premodern anti-Semitism. There are sections on the persecuted Roma, homosexuals, the disabled; the exhibition also carefully notes that 90 percent of those murdered in killing centers like Auschwitz were Jews. There are home movies of Jews before the war, including both religious and secular people. There are video testimonies from survivors.
The exhibition is dependable. There is a room about the First World War’s devastation, and another on the rise of Nazism. The audio guide says thoughtful things about bystanders and complicity. There are cartoons and children’s picture books showing Jews with hooked noses and bags of money, images familiar today to anyone who has been Jewish on Twitter. There are photos of signs reading Kauft nicht bei Juden, Don’t Buy from Jews, a sentiment familiar today to anyone who has been Jewish on a college campus with a boycott-Israel campaign. There is a section about the refusal of the world to take in Jewish refugees. Somewhere there is a Torah scroll.
The exhibition is relentless. After an hour and a half, I marveled that I was barely past Kristallnacht. What the hell is taking so long? I found myself thinking, alarmed by how annoyed I was. Can’t they invade Poland already? Kill us all and get it over with! It took another hour’s worth of audio guide before I made it to the Auschwitz selection ramp, where bewildered Jews were unloaded from cattle cars and separated into those who would die immediately and those who would die in a few more weeks.
Somehow after I got through the gas chambers, there was still, impossibly, another hour left. (How can there still be an hour left? Isn’t everyone dead?) Forced labor, medical experiments, the processing of stolen goods, acts of resistance, and finally liberation—all of it was covered in what came to feel like a forced march (which, yes, was covered too). It was in the gas-chamber room, where I was introduced to a steel-mesh column that, as the wall text explained, was used to drop Zyklon B pesticide pellets into the gas chamber, killing hundreds of naked people within 15 minutes, that I began to wonder what the purpose of all this is.
I don’t mean the purpose of killing millions of people with pesticide pellets in a steel-mesh column in a gas chamber. That part, the supposedly mysterious part, is abundantly clear: People will do absolutely anything to blame their problems on others. No, what I’m wondering about is the purpose of my knowing all these obscene facts, in such granular detail.