Auschwitz 'not far away politically' from today, says Waterloo prof

University of Waterloo architecture professor Robert Jan van Pelt created an exhibit that looks at Auschwitz through buildings and place, a treatment not seen in a museum before. The exhibit is currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

'The distinction between lies and truth had become irrelevant,' Robert Jan van Pelt says

Concrete posts that were once part of the fence of the Auschwitz camp are seen as part of the exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City curated by University of Waterloo's Robert Jan van Pelt. These posts were covered in barbed and electrified wire, ensuring no prisoner could escape. (Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oświęcim, Poland/MUSEALIA/José Barea/)

The conditions that existed to make the Auschwitz death camp possible are not far away from what we see today, says the University of Waterloo's Robert Jan van Pelt, the curator of an exhibit on Auschwitz that opened recently in New York City. 

In today's globalized world, you can reach Auschwitz in less than a day, he says, but also "it's not far away politically."

Van Pelt is a University of Waterloo architecture professor who curated the museum exhibit, "Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away." It's currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, until Jan. 3, 2020.

The first step that makes fascism possible, van Pelt says, is when people "cease to care" about whether something is true.

"In the 1930s, the distinction between lies and truth had become irrelevant," he said.

That echoes in North America and Europe today, he says.

University of Waterloo's Robert Jan van Pelt is one of the world's leading experts on Auschwitz and is curator of the museum exhibit, 'Auschwitz: Not long ago, Not far away.' It's currently being shown at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Focusing on Auschwitz

Van Pelt is considered one of the world's leading experts on Auschwitz. He was asked to curate the exhibit which is in partnership with the international exhibition firm Musealia and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.

It has already been shown in Spain.

The exhibit includes 10 life-sized replica models created by University of Waterloo architecture students while on co-operative education terms. Those models include key elements of a gas chamber.

It's not an easy topic to cover, van Pelt says, because it's not like making an exhibit about Harry Potter or Cleopatra.

There are 750 original artifacts, including from van Pelt's own family, and the exhibit is specifically about Auschwitz, not the Holocaust.

"While the Holocaust and Auschwitz overlap significantly, they're not identical," he said.

Jewish people were killed there but what makes it unique is that in Auschwitz, Christians from Poland were killed, as well as Russian prisoners of war (POWs) and the Roma, as well as prisoners from other countries who were not Jewish.

The exhibit focuses on the architectural design of the place where all those victims met their end.

"When you create an exhibit that has a unity of place … it actually becomes easier to tell a story. It's a very, very complex story," he said.

"But if you root it in a landscape that a visitor gets to know very well in the two-and-a-half, three, four hours of his or her visit, then it becomes possible to actually create complexities that are not possible when in some way, the visitor has really no idea where the place is and how it is structured."

This model of a freight car is also part of the exhibit. Approximately 80 people would be forced into a freight car like this when they were taken to Auschwitz. The freight cars were also used to move people's belongings. (Collection of Musealia/John Halpern)

People are 'totally absorbed'

Bruce Ratner, chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage's board of trustees, said in a release ahead of the exhibit opening that it is a reminder Auschwitz "is not ancient history but living memory, warning us to be vigilant, haunting us with the admonition 'never again.'"

Luis Ferreiro, director of Musealia, said Auschwitz "did not start with the gas chambers. Hatred does not happen overnight: it builds up slowly among people. It does so with words and thoughts, with small everyday acts, with prejudices."

The most incredible thing about the exhibit is that people go through it silently, van Pelt says.

"I think one of the most amazing things I see in the exhibition is that people are totally absorbed. We have an audio tour in nine languages. And they're not texting. They're not phoning. People are in the story."

Each person brings their own experience into the exhibit and learns their own lessons, he says.

"It's very difficult to say what people, long-term, take out of it," van Pelt says.

"For me right now, the fact that people are in silence for three, four hours, disconnected from today's world and engaged in this topic is an incredibly encouraging sign about the possibility of confronting this very difficult past."

He adds, "We wanted to present Auschwitz not as a kind of safe, piece of a past that is past, but basically as part of our own world and that in some way it's emergence was possible because of conditions that we face today."