Giving a Voice to the Choiceless

By: Caitlin Dashiell

Hidden in plain view, captured prisoners and soldiers of the Nazi army comprised the inhabitants of three internment camps known as Auschwitz in Germany during the Holocaust. Siphoned back and forth between death, prison, and forced labor, Auschwitz’s imprisoned individuals were made to identify as Jewish, or with ethnicities or social classes determined by German Nazi standards to be equally inferior. Marked as inadequate for the human race, these individuals were brought into the triad of camps to be traumatized, enslaved, and often fatally poisoned within gas chambers. This narrative of the Holocaust is known by individuals around the world, whether they lived during the time of the Second World War or not, because of how it embeds itself into the cultural narrative of many countries globally. As these horrors border on the surreal, passed down because of trauma often impossible to comprehend, it takes the accurate communication of memory to keep the events of the past living. Opening on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the “Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz” exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH takes on this challenge of memory transmission, offering representational personal belongings from once-captive prisoners in Auschwitz, in tandem with the personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors, and now Cincinnati residents, Werner Coppel and Bella Ouziel. Through this strategy, the Freedom Center not only represents an event of trauma, but transmits the story of the Holocaust to those who can only understand through the absorption of these communicated memories.

Told chronologically, “Unlocking the Gates” conveys the story of a man and woman living through the trauma of the Holocaust, from their initiation into the camps to their escape. Visitors walk past what architect Peter Zumthor would call “surrounding objects,” which make the otherwise blank walls and floors echo with the narrative being communicated (54), and come to screens displaying videos of Werner and Bella telling their stories. The physical artifacts and candid verbal narratives come together to express and transmit how a person can be stripped of his or her identity and reduced to what Werner calls “consumable raw materials.” Werner and Bella tell their stories, acting simultaneously as a voice for themselves, and for those that have been silenced.

Broken into stages, and communicated through groupings of objects and their location in the exhibit, artifacts and screens are split into structured rooms connected by corridors, and are paired together in correspondence to each phase of life in Auschwitz, as noted by the exhibit’s narrators. The initial set of items speaks to the fears of those targeted individuals who were unable to escape who they were. Books, paper ephemera, and embroidered tokens of being marked a Jew sit in glass cases, serving as objects that attest to the Nazi’s destruction of people’s lives and identities. The Jewish people were identified through markers on their homes, their clothing, their passports, and often on their businesses, objectified through physical signs of banishment. These indicators became the first level of identity erasure for the Jewish people.

Moving into the second spatial construct of the exhibition, visitors start in a corridor which details the process of capture for the Jewish people. As Werner explains in the video at the end of the corridor, “When I got off the train, I heard ‘women and children to the left: men to the right,’” which would become the last words many heard before the Nazi’s silenced the voices of those who entered Auschwitz. Visitors are transported back to the moments preceding Werner’s capture through the use of present-day spatial constriction within the exhibit, as well as visuals that signal entrapment. Here, visitors to “Unlocking the Gates” see the birth of identity erasure, as images and ephemera of individuals boarding train cars coat the walls of the exhibit. This progression through the tight corridor and into the exhibit signals how the exhibit shifts the visitors’ focus from the process of initial emotional destruction and mental degradation in the camps to that of physical erasure and trauma. Not only are the Jewish people, in addition to others identified as inferior to the German race, stripped down to a single term defining their worth, but their understood environment is erased from their lives.

Because the exhibition forces visitors to continue to progress claustrophobically through tight spaces and corridors, visitors gain a greater level of clarity about the approach taken by the Nazi army to control the intake and distribution of bodies into Auschwitz. Taking this even further, visitors to “Unlocking the Gates” are drawn to wall displays that convey and transmit some of the dialog of the Nazi enforcers within the camps, with one army general commenting that “shooting became a strain,” indicating how, as time went on, the Nazi mentality went from using brute force to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality with the transition to the gas chambers. The Nazis made use of deceptive language and actions to sanitize themselves, and the greatest abuse of power became the manipulation of once harmless constructs for the benefit of the “master race.” Even through infrastructure as harmless as the railway system within Germany, the Nazi’s utilized these lines for transport to Auschwitz, taking advantage of an existing infrastructure for the supposed betterment of the race, shuttling “inferior” individuals (often) to their eventual death in Auschwitz. Through the language and conveyed memories of this exhibit, representation becomes transmission, with visitors interacting with memories through the startling dialogue that catches individuals within the physical architectural boundaries of the exhibition. Visitors to “Unlocking the Gates” now possess a richer internal understanding of the past, as communicated memories impose themselves on visitors through language and visual indicators of trauma.

The final portions of this exhibit not only touch on, but uncover in-depth, the process of forced labor and escape within Auschwitz for Werner and Bella, as the exhibit also presents the personal objects and struggles of this man and woman specifically. Werner and Bella look directly into the camera to speak, giving life to their personal belongings, as only the potency of words and language can. The Nazis took things that were necessary, though maybe not beautiful, and bent them to their will, infecting the social structure, the infrastructure, and the consumable goods with the blood of those not included in the “master race.” However, what Werner and Bella tell us through their accounts of labor, as they approached their opportunities for freedom, is that their work and daily activities were never done without losing sight of how to make it out alive. As read in a letter written by a mother on one of the trains into Auschwitz: “remain free people, and observe everything with open eyes.” Perhaps this heightened perception and observation was what assisted Bella and Werner in surviving. Though this woman may not have survived to return to her children, her words live on through this exhibit as a testament to how language and written memories offer a unique perspective on historical events. Emotionally charged, this exhibit merits praise for how it transports visitors back to a time of captivity and constriction, while still keeping them with one foot firmly in the present.

“Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz 70 Years Later” is one city’s way of remembering a time of incommunicable strife and trauma. Drawing parallels to American slavery, and what are commonly considered acts of enslavement, “Unlocking the Gates” demonstrates the systematic oppression and inhumanity evident in the structuring of Auschwitz. The decision to incorporate this exhibition into The Freedom Center was grounded in learning about and reflecting on historical events that challenged the strength of the human spirit amidst extreme oppression, as explained by executive director Sarah L. Weiss. The victims of the Holocaust and the concentration camps of Auschwitz were defined by their ability to act as a piece of a machine, stripped of freedom, and devoid of the ability to make choices. In an attempt to educate visitors and offer reflection on the events of the past, the chief desire of The Freedom Center in the display of “Unlocking the Gates” is to communicate the security of freedom “in all its forms,” whether this be through testimony, representational physical objects, or the power of the written word (“Powerful Exhibit”). Communicating memory through personal testimony and tangible objects is how this exhibit makes its mark on modern day discourse regarding slavery and institutional oppression.

Though the American public cannot directly or accurately understand what going through this process of erasure and rebirth entailed, what can be communicated is how these events can be included in our national narrative, in order for us to understand trauma and slavery outside of traditional definitions. These transmissions of memory can be used to develop how we better understand and react to our own trauma, in addition that of other countries, to strengthen how the memory of events of global impact are incorporated in our society. Here, transmission of memory and language through spoken and written form, as it relates to personal objects, serves as an aid for our collective memory; giving way to how we interpret the experiences we have not lived through. The exhibit ends with both Werner and Bella offering their thoughts 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, and as each of them speaks, voices tense, they talk about looking back after 70 years. Now with scars, tattoos, and, most importantly, families, Werner and Bella are reminded of where they have been, what they have achieved, and how survival is rooted most deeply in the retained memories of what is good.

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Works Cited

“Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz 70 Years Later.” The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. 50 East Freedom Way, Cincinatti, OH 45202. 7 February 2015.

Zumthor, Peter. Atmospheres: Cultural Environments, Surrounding Objects. Reinach: Birkhauser, 1998. Print

“Powerful Exhibit Shares Local Stories of Despair, Hope and Loss During the Holocaust.” National Underground Railroad Freedom Center . N.p., 14 Dec. 2014 Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

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