Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor

He didn’t have to say what I already knew from the emails the synagogue routinely sends: that it’s increased the rent-a-cops’ hours, that it’s done active-shooter training with the nursery-school staff, that further initiatives are in place which “cannot be made public.” “A lock on the door,” he repeated, astounded. “They just have no idea.”

He is young, this rabbi—younger than me. He was realizing the same thing I realized at the Auschwitz exhibition, about the specificity of our experience. I feel the need to apologize here, to acknowledge that yes, this rabbi and I both know that many non-Jewish houses of worship in other places also require rent-a-cops, to announce that yes, we both know that other groups have been persecuted too—and this degrading need to recite these middle-school-obvious facts is itself an illustration of the problem, which is that dead Jews are only worth discussing if they are part of something bigger, something more. Some other people might go to Holocaust museums to feel sad, and then to feel proud of themselves for feeling sad. They will have learned something important, discovered a fancy metaphor for the limits of Western civilization. The problem is that for us, dead Jews aren’t a metaphor, but rather actual people we do not want our children to become.

The Auschwitz exhibition labors mightily to personalize, to humanize, and these are exactly the moments when its cracks show. Some of the artifacts have stories attached to them, such as the inscribed tin engagement ring a woman hid under her tongue. But most of the personal items—a baby carriage, a child’s shoe, eyeglasses, a onesie—are completely divorced from the people who owned them.

The audio guide humbly speculates about who these people might have been: “She might have been a housewife or a factory worker or a musician …” The idea isn’t subtle: This woman could be you. But to make her you, we have to deny that she was actually herself. These musings turn people into metaphors, and it slowly becomes clear to me that this is the goal. Despite doing absolutely everything right, this exhibition is not that different from “Human Bodies,” full of dead people pressed into service to teach us something.

At the end of the show, onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another. While listening to this, it occurs to me that I have never read survivor literature in Yiddish—the language spoken by 80 percent of victims—suggesting this idea. In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities, about Jewish national independence, about Jewish history, about self-defense, and on rare occasions, about vengeance. Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.