Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.
European Heritage Awards / Europa Nostra Awards 2020 - Education, Training and Awareness-Raising
At the Heart of the Matter.
Luis Ferreiro Director, Musealia
Paseo de los Fueros 1 1-H. 20005 – San Sebastián Spain
In April 2009, I received a copy of Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning for my birthday. My brother Jesús had just passed away. His death had come suddenly, at the age of 25. Understandably, I wasn’t ready to read the book.
A few months later, however, I found myself holding Frankl’s book one evening. I looked at it for a few minutes, not really sure what to do. After a while, I opened it and read the first few pages. I discovered how Viktor, a young Austrian Jew with a promising career as a psychiatrist ahead of him, wandered lost through the streets of a Vienna threatened by the imminent arrival of the Nazi regime. He had to decide between emigrating to the United States with his wife or staying put in Vienna with his parents. The latter would place all their lives in danger. Time was running out. He had to decide.
Reading about his experience in various Nazi concentration camps—including Auschwitz—was the source of inspiration to create a touring exhibition on the history of the camp. In a world still prone to waves of hatred, genocide and terror, I felt compelled to share this story in the form of an exhibition.
Narrating this kind of history, which brings us face-to-face with our most complex past was—and is—one of Musealia’s main objectives. We are an independent company from Spain and have been working for over 20 years to create exhibitions that help us understand the human condition and its history, aiming to reach new audiences and educate and inspire people when it comes to our past, present and future. We are a passionate and talented group of people with different areas of expertise, including narrative and storytelling, communication, collections and museology. Our exhibitions are characterised by their narrative approach, historical rigour, educational value and emotional impact.
That moment in 2009 marked the start of a long journey, whose first phase culminated in Madrid in December 2017. The exhibition Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away is the fruit of a process that began when I started reading Viktor E. Frankl’s book.
With the constant and decisive support of the exhibition’s executive producers, José Antonio Múgica and María Teresa Aguirre, we assembled a team of international historians and experts who formed the backbone of the project, including the Dutch historian Dr Robert Jan van Pelt, the American scholar Dr Michael Berenbaum, the Holocaust education expert Paul Salmons, former executive director of the Holocaust Center for Humanity Miriam Greenbaum and the architect Djamel Zeniti. We began by laying down a series of principles to guide us in a challenge as complex as telling the story of Auschwitz:
• The concept of authenticity brought by the original objects that would be on display and testimonials from the victims. • Rigour in producing the content, applying the highest standards of scholarship in the study of the Holocaust. • The narrative nature of the exhibition, brought to life by an engaging multi-language audio-guide. • A broad vision of the project beyond the four walls of the exhibition, complementing its stay in different museums with a wide-ranging cultural programme. • The creation of educational materials for school groups visiting the exhibition.
Our next step was to approach the Auschwitz–Birkenau Memorial and Museum, directed by Dr. Piotr Cywinski. The museum’s response exceeded our expectations, transforming the exhibition into an unprecedented joint production involving their historians, conservation experts and educators. Pawel Sawicki, as special coordinator of the project at the museum, and Dr Piotr Setkiewicz, as their head historian, played a key role in the collaboration between the two organisations.
The resulting exhibition contains over 600 original objects, many of which are on display for the first time. Many come from the collections of the Auschwitz–Birkenau Memorial and Museum, made available thanks to its head of collections, Elzbieta Cajzer, although the exhibition also includes items on loan from over 20 museums, institutions and private collections throughout the world. Each object helps us to understand the unfolding of the complex and dramatic history of Auschwitz.
The exhibition is currently touring a number of museums in the United States and will visit cities throughout the world over the coming years. This will allow it to bring the story of Auschwitz to millions of people, taking them on a thought-provoking journey into human nature, told through the dual nature of Auschwitz as a physical space and as a symbol and metaphor for unchecked human cruelty.
In 2020, the project received one of the most prestigious awards in the field of European cultural heritage, the Europa Nostra prize for Education, Training and Awareness-Raising. The award was particularly significant for the team behind the exhibition as it refers to our continent’s cultural heritage. The space we now know as Europe is built on the moral and physical ruins of the concentration and extermination camps of the Second World War. Understanding how the ruins of the Auschwitz barracks, the dark corners of the Birkenau crematoriums and the stories of the lives taken there form part of the shared legacy of our societies—of our Europe—is the first step to building a future that will not repeat these events.
We must not forget that the attempt to annihilate each and every Jewish woman, man and child in Europe did not happen long ago or far away. It happened here, in the heart of our continent, in a modern society, similar in many ways to our own. It involved the complicity of many different parts of society and of political, cultural, academic, scientific and bureaucratic elites. One of the main goals of this project is to help the public understand how that place came to be and how its existence continues to resonate in our vision of the world and ourselves.
The Russian historian and writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and who spent over ten years in a Soviet concentration camp, once remarked:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
History is often a silent cry rising up from the depths of the earth. In the case of Auschwitz, this voiceless cry is a warning of where a future built on hatred and indifference to the suffering of others, on antisemitism and racism, can lead us and of just how far that dark half of the human heart can take us.