To Edward Rothstein, Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away, which recently opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, is “unmissable,” thanks primarily to the hundreds of photographs and artifacts on display. But it also falls prey to the all-too-familiar tendency to turn the Holocaust into a “warning beacon”:
Here is an event scarred by singularity—the attempt to eradicate a people that numbered in the millions, living in more than a dozen countries in the world’s most politically sophisticated continent, who were executed with meticulous, obsessive brutality in the midst of a world war. After three- quarters of a century, it still stymies efforts at understanding.
Somehow, though, that singularity inspires insistence on the opposite, as if the Holocaust were simply the result of fascism or racism or intolerance. The Holocaust’s presumed repeatability—if not imminence—strips it of particularity and diminishes it by turning it into an ever-ready analogy. . . .
In the [exhibit’s] introductory section, Jews seem like afterthoughts, secondary to more fundamental political hatreds. . . . But from the very beginning, as Hitler made clear in 1925’s Mein Kampf (we see Heinrich Himmler’s annotated copy), Jews were at the center of Nazi obsessions. The exhibition acknowledges that Jews were a “special target,” but it seems intent on minimizing that issue. The result is that Germany’s expulsion of the Jews and then the Final Solution seem to erupt without context. . . .
[T]he exhibition does not prepare us to make sense of this or to recognize that despite the widespread suffering, without the goal of killing Jews, Auschwitz would have remained a conventional Nazi horror pit. Auschwitz is testimony to an obsession, around which other hatreds inconsistently circulated.
Make no mistake: this show wields considerable power, but, like most Holocaust exhibitions (aside from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem), it is oddly discomfited by that Judaic center and overly content with contemporary platitudes. In the catalog, Piotr M.A. Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz museum, warns that an Auschwitz could happen again because of “the escalation of populism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other racist ideologies.” This need to catalog villainies has counterparts in other recent responses toward hatred of Jews, making sure that any condemnation of anti-Semitism is cushioned by a roster of other hatreds.