Auschwitz exhibit offers powerful education, insight about the Holocaust

Auschwitz exhibition train car and co-curator Dr. Michael Berenbaum. (Photo by Alex Wilson)

Ronald Reagan served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Since he was already a famous movie actor, however, he was not sent abroad, and was instead assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit to make military training films. It was while assigned to the unit that Reagan saw images of the Holocaust he would never forget.

“He and his unit were sent footage from the field and they saw Dachau and they saw the horror. And he was so moved by that that he went home and he actually made his young children watch the footage because he wanted them to know the importance of what hatred can do,” said Melissa Giller, chief marketing officer of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Simi Valley. The images were taken following the liberation by U.S. forces of Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp.

“So throughout his entire presidency, he always talked about the importance of never forgetting. He would say things like, ‘You know, people say that the Holocaust is incomprehensible, but it’s not. It’s comprehensible because if we don’t comprehend it will happen again,’” Giller said. “So we just felt it’s very important to have this exhibition for that exact reason. We have to educate and make sure people remember so it doesn’t happen again.”

West Coast premiere

Six million people died during the Holocaust, with over 1,100,000 killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. March 24 marks the West Coast premiere of the largest traveling exhibition on Auschwitz ever assembled. The exhibition includes over 700 artifacts and 400 photographs including objects from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum as well as over 20 other institutions from around the world. This is the first time the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has ever allowed artifacts to go abroad.

The exhibition, titled Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away., opened in 2018 in Madrid and then traveled to New York, Kansas City and Sweden before coming to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. The exhibition will make two other stops in North America before the bulk of the materials go back to Poland, but Simi Valley is the only place the show will be seen on the West Coast.

Giller said demand for tickets is so high that some upcoming weekends are already sold out, and reservations are highly recommended. The 12,000-square-foot exhibition includes a mandatory audio tour so people can comprehend the displays. It takes about two hours to experience the entire show and will be limited to 200 people an hour. The exhibition runs through August 13.

Giller said the impact of seeing the actual objects from Auschwitz is profound. “No book, no podcast, no history lesson can prepare you for the impact and power that these artifacts hold. These artifacts are real artifacts. They’re direct witnesses to the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. And they’re here on display so that we can bring the education of the camps, of the Holocaust, to the people rather than people having to go to Poland to see them.”

She added that Reagan would have been proud to see the exhibition on display at the library that also serves as the final resting place for Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

“He spent his entire time in office as President of the United States speaking out against tyranny and those types of regimes and talking about how he strived for freedom and peace, equality throughout the entire world,” said Giller. “So I think if he were alive, he would be very honored and humbled to be able to have this exhibition here at the Reagan Library.”

Some of the exhibits include a train car, placed outside the museum, of the type used to transport people to Auschwitz. A gold cloth star on display was required to be worn by Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Personal items — shoes, suitcases, eyeglasses, etc. — of people who eventually died at the camp leave a deep personal impact. There’s also a stone fence post that held electric wires to keep prisoners from escaping . . . and served as a way for some people to end their own lives if they could no longer cope with life in the concentration camp.

“Personal and Deep”

Exhibition Co-Curator Dr. Michael Berenbaum is a Distinguished Professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and served as project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Berenbaum spoke with the Ventura County Reporter as the once-electrified fence post was being installed on March 16 by a crew of experts from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

According to Berenbaum, there’s been an overwhelming response to the exhibition as it’s traveled the world so far. He said that Auschwitz sold out repeatedly for months in Kansas City, was viewed by 600,000 people in Madrid and also won an international prize for the best European exhibition.

“I think Auschwitz has become the symbol of evil. In fact, I call it the negative absolute,” explained Bernbaum. “The Holocaust was perpetrated in 23 countries. It involved the most civilized advanced society with literature and art, music and culture. And therefore, to engage two great monotheistic religions, it is a uniquely Western and distinctly modern genocide. And consequently, people are drawn to this. We don’t create a chamber of horrors, and consequently, One example of an object that might be “personal and deep” to viewers is a suitcase that

was discovered with a child’s

dress inside.

“Every mother who looks at that, every father who has a daughter, looks at a child’s dress and sees the child that was in that, can imagine their own child,” Berenbaum said. “So we make it personal, we make it deep. We give you multiple layers of information. You see it small, you see it large. You see it in a variety of ways.”

Destination Unknown

The train car outside the museum is another gripping symbol of the Holocaust: It represents Nazi Germany’s move toward killing people in concentration camps rather than where the victims lived.

“Trains were essential because what happened in the evolution of the Holocaust is, first, they sent mobile killers to stationary victims, and then they reversed the process and they made the victims mobile and they sent them to stationary killing centers,” explained the history professor. “The process by which they developed it meant that it didn’t depend on individual killers. It depended on the extermination process.”

Berenbaum described the train car as an especially meaningful artifact because it makes people think about what the victims were going through when they were taken from their homes . . . for what might have been their very last trip anywhere on earth.

“You’re moving from your home with your family to destination unknown. It’s the last moment some people were with their wife and children. It’s the last moment the family was together,” he said. “Everybody remembers their last conversation. Everybody remembers getting off because the world was turned upside down.”

Berenbaum said it’s appropriate that the exhibition is appearing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library because Reagan was so devoted to spreading democracy and promoting freedom for all people.

“Ronald Reagan understood evil. And this is evil. This is radical,” he said. “So the idea that we have a government that can do good rather than evil and a government that could protect human dignity, human rights and the like. We’d like them to come away with a certain sense of empathy for the victims, horror at the perpetrator and the sense that there were people who stood up and could do good. And it didn’t have to happen. It was done by people, to people. And we can do better.”

Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. runs March 24-Aug. 13 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum at 40

Presidential Drive, Simi Valley. Recommended for ages 12 and up. Reservations highly recommended. For tickets and more information, call 800-410-8354 or visit