First roving Auschwitz exhibition opens in Madrid

Letters thrown from death trains, tiny children's shoes, a Nazi gas mask... Hundreds of objects from Auschwitz are going on display in Madrid as a roving exhibition on the Nazi extermination camp opens.

First roving Auschwitz exhibition opens in Madrid
More than 600 original objects are shown in the first travelling exhibition about the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. All photos: Gabriel Bouys / AFP

Some will leave the memorial site of the German death camp in Poland for the first time for an exhibition that starts in the Spanish capital on December 1st before heading on a tour that will take in a dozen cities in Europe, America, Asia and Oceania.

Inmates' drawings found in a bottle hidden in the camp, a piece of electrified fence, an original carriage like those used to take Jews, Poles, prisoners of war, gypsies and others to the camp where over 1.1 million people died during World War II…

More than 600 objects will be on display for those who can't travel to see Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazis' biggest concentration and extermination camp where hundreds of thousands were killed in the gas chambers or died from starvation, disease and exhaustion before it was liberated 72 years ago.

Entitled “Auschwitz: Not far away, not long ago,” the exhibition will stay in Madrid until June before starting its global tour. 

Reaching the world

“It's very important that Auschwitz gets out into the world,” said Luis Ferreiro, project director and head of the Spanish company Musealia which created the exhibition with a team of experts led by Dutch historian Robert Jan van Pelt.

The precious few who survived the ordeal and can give a witness account are fast disappearing, such as Hungary's Imre Kertesz, the Nobel Literature Prize winner who was deported to Auschwitz when he was just 15, and died last year.    

“It's the first time that a major collection of original objects leaves the national Auschwitz-Birkenau museum and leaves Poland for a roving exhibition,” Ferreiro told AFP.

“Most of the objects displayed have never been shown to the public.”    

Other institutions and private collectors from various countries also contributed to the exhibition which seeks to shed light on various aspects of the camp, such as the grisly process of selecting victims.

Mengele's experiments

One section explains how notorious camp doctor Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death” who dispatched people to the gas chambers and carried out often lethal experiments on inmates, would “look for twins” among the new arrivals — one of his favourite test subjects.

Survivors recall being given injections of bacteria for “research” purposes.    According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum website, after a series of examinations, twins were often killed with lethal injections of phenol to the heart to facilitate the next phase of research — autopsies and the comparative analysis of their internal organs.   

Among the exhibits is an operating table used at the camp, even if it can't be said “with certainty that it was used by Mengele,” said Ferreiro.

Showcasing the evidence

Fernando Arlandis of Madrid's Arte Canal centre, which is hosting the exhibition, said organisers wanted to show physical evidence of the slaughter.   

On the wall is a quote from the account of Rudolf Hoess, a senior Auschwitz commander.

“I viewed the killings in block II, wearing a gas mask,” he wrote in 1946.   

“The first gassing of people did not really sink into my mind.”

Next to the quote is a gas mask which was “used in Auschwitz” alongside a box of Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide used for mass executions.   

Drawings by former Polish prisoner Jan Komski, who died in 2002, bear witness to the cremation of bodies and to the violence that was endemic in the camp.

One of them shows a “kapo,” a prisoner assigned to supervise others, on a cart pulled by inmates whom he is whipping.   

In another room is one of the wooden barracks where prisoners were housed.

'Crucial role to play'

Some 1.1 million people, most of them European Jews, died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which Nazi Germany set up in occupied Poland in 1940 and which became Europe's biggest death camp.

More than 100,000 others including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters also died there before the camp was liberated by Soviet forces in 1945.

Of the camp's 6,500 SS personnel who survived the war, fewer than 50 were ever convicted.

“We feel the growing presence of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” said Polish historian Piotr M. A. Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.

“This exhibition, at this specific moment, can play a crucial role in our schools, in our societies.”

By Laurence Boutreux / AFP


How Spain’s museums are preparing to reopen in pandemic era

Madrid's Reina Sofia is preparing to reopen with new social distancing and hygiene measures in place.

How Spain's museums are preparing to reopen in pandemic era
Photo by Gabriel Buoys / AFP

The halls are eerily quiet at Madrid's Reina Sofia, Spain's most visited museum, as a solitary art restorer looks after its star attraction — Pablo Picasso's anti-war masterpiece “Guernica”.

Like all of Spain's museums, the modern art museum housed in a former hospital has been closed since mid-March due to a nationwide lockdown to contain one of the world's deadliest coronavirus outbreaks.

But with the restrictions starting to be eased, it is getting ready to reopen — hopefully in a month — with new social distancing and hygiene regulations in place for the pandemic age.

Museums must “convey the message that there is no need to fear others,” said the Reina Sofia's director, Manuel Borja-Villel.   

Visitors will move through the multi-story building on a circular path so as not to cross by one another, cameras will take people's temperature and dispensers for hand sanitiser will be distributed across the museum, he told AFP.   

Paper maps and brochures will no longer be available as they can transmit germs, and visitors will instead be able to download an info app on their own smartphones.

“There will be nothing that people can touch,” said Borja-Villel.   

After weeks of confinement, visiting museums can help to revive public life, he added.

“It is important to transmit this joy of being with others, this idea that human beings, by definition, are not alone,” he said. 

Less big exhibitions?

The Reina Sofia received 4.4 million visitors in 2019, half of them from outside Spain, but it fears it will see a 30 percent fall in revenues this year because of the coronavirus lockdown.

The government has ordered museums to restrict admissions to a third of their capacity when they do re-open to ensure social distancing rules are respected.

Borja-Villel predicts museums will have to move away from their current model based on holding a series of “big exhibitions” and adopt a more long-term strategy.

While the Reina Sofia is closed to the public, restoration work continues.    

“We must remain to ensure works remain in good shape,” said the museum's chief restorer, Jorge Garcia Gomez-Tejedor, who wore a face mask as he inspected “Guernica”, the emblematic painting depicting the horrors of Spain's 1936-39 civil war.

The Reina Sofia, along with the nearby Prado and the Thyssen museums, form a so-called “Golden Triangle of Art” which is one of the Spanish capital's top tourism draws.

Digital transformation

The Prado — Spain's national museum which is home to paintings by Spanish masters such as El Greco, Velazquez and Goya  — fears a 70 percent drop in revenues this year, said its communications director Carlos Chaguaceda.    

Around 60 percent of its visitors are foreigners, with a significant number from the United States, he added.

The Prado was already forced to reschedule all of the temporary exhibitions it had planned for this year due to problems in receiving loans of works from other museums during the pandemic, which has brought air traffic to a halt.   

At the Thyssen, the pandemic has been “a trigger for the digital transformation” at the institution, said its executive director, Evelio Acevedo.

During the lockdown the museum boosted the amount of its online content, by for example providing a virtual tour of a temporary exhibition of portraits by Dutch master Rembrandt led by the show's curator.

The “Rembrandt and Amsterdam portraiture” exhibition opened on February 18th and had initially been set to run until May 24th, but it will likely now be extended to the end of August.

This sort of free online content won't stem an expected 60 percent drop in revenues this year but they are helping to launch “a transformation process that will last years,” said Acevedo.

By AFP's Alvaro Villalobos