Having achieved admirable success in Madrid, Spain — where the exhibit period was twice extended due to public demand — the Auschwitz exhibit will open in May of 2019 at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
I am honored that Luis Ferreiro participated in the following interview.
Q: What originally inspired you to organize the exhibit “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away?”
My brother had only recently died after a sudden heart attack. The person who gave me the book must’ve thought I’d be helped by reading it. To be honest, at that time, I didn’t know the book dealt with Frankl’s explanation of how he — as a prisoner — survived Nazi concentration camps. Struggling with grief, though, I just sensed that I wasn’t in a mood to read it.
But several months later, in the summer of 2009, I became curious about Frankl’s book. After reading the first few pages, I found it hard to put down. I was captivated — and deeply moved — by the way Frankl describes his concentration camp experiences from a psychological point of view. He brilliantly analyzes how people find meaning in carrying on, even through the most horrific circumstances.
Reading Frankl’s book inspired me to share the story — as well as the way he tells it — in this exhibition.
Q: Please let us know us the most important things you’ve learned from organizing this exhibit.
A: On one level, the enormous amount of history I learned while organizing the Auschwitz exhibit was eye-opening.
On another level, though, what organizing the exhibit has made me realize is that we mustn’t take things for granted.
What do I mean by that? One winter night, just after finishing a book by another survivor, Primo Levi, I got into my warm bed. And it struck me how fortunate we are to have a place to live, food on the table and a warm bed at night. I tried — and mainly failed — to imagine coping with being a prisoner at Auschwitz, day after soul-crushing day, and night after anguished night.
Complex and messy as our democracies may be, they provide us with liberty and human rights. Under no conditions should we take our freedoms for granted. Working on the Auschwitz exhibition has given me a much deeper sense of how precious and fragile our peace is.
Q: Please tell us about some of the most significant reactions to the Auschwitz exhibit.
A: Two reactions are salient in my mind.
The first involves time. On average, visitors spend around 3 hours in this exhibition. Devoting that much time (and in some cases more) disconnected from everyday duties and focused on this story is truly extraordinary. It speaks to how interested our visitors are in understanding the tragic history of Auschwitz.
Then there’s the silence shared among exhibition visitors. Even when we host several school groups simultaneously, at most times, you could hear a pin drop. This grows out of respect for the subject, and from the notion that, above all, this exhibition is a tribute to the memory of all the victims.
Q: As this Auschwitz exhibit first opened in Madrid with Spanish and English signage, and as the New York City metropolitan area has a large Hispanic population, will the exhibit have Spanish signage in New York? Also, are there any plans for special outreach to Hispanic communities to motivate them to visit the New York exhibit?
A: The titles and the topline text of each room will be in both English and Spanish.
And, the audio-tour — the basic tool through which we explain the exhibition’s story — will be available in 8 different languages, Spanish among them, naturalmente.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage is, furthermore, working closely with different communities in New York City. Additionally, as in Madrid, there will be a series of public lectures as part of what we call the exhibition’s cultural program. This will allow for coverage of many different topics and will help to motivate different communities to visit the exhibition.
Q: Do you think that with the Auschwitz exhibit, you’ve made positive headway in consciousness raising, and if so, what are the signs of that positive headway?
A: Our main intention with the exhibit is that of stimulating thought and discussion around how we can use what we’ve learned from the past to shape our present and future in ways that avoid hatred.
Only time will tell how much the exhibition helped in that particular direction.
Please add anything else you would like my readers to know about the Auschwitz exhibit.
Many visitors and journalists ask why we think there’s been such strong interest in this topic, as well as why we had that interest in the first place.
I’ve already explained how I felt the need to create an exhibition about Auschwitz.
Regarding our common interest in the exhibition – that is, the interest that we, our visitors, the general public and world societies share – I’ll say that we at Musealia are loyal to our Spanish roots, in that – (in the words of the poet and mystic Saint John of the Cross) – we do not shy away from engaging la noche oscura del alma, the dark night of the soul.
And the exhibit tries to acknowledge the truth of the insight formulated a century ago by the great American philosopher William James:
The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. It will work with many persons; it will work far more generally than most of us are ready to suppose; and within the sphere of its successful operation there is nothing to be said against it as a religious solution. But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.