By the spring of 1945, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had seen his share of war, but he was not prepared for what he witnessed when Allied troops liberated the Ohrdruf labor camp in southern Germany.
Confronted with the horror, the supreme Allied commander showed remarkable foresight. He ordered photographers and film crews into the camp, where they documented the emaciated survivors and charred remains of prisoners who had been worked to death. Eisenhower knew that the mind-numbing cruelty of the Holocaust would make it possible to one day deny that it happened, so he ordered graphic and powerful archival evidence that remains to this day.
Even in 2021, more than 76 years after liberation, the depth of suffering is hard to fathom.
An important exhibit at Kansas City’s Union Station provides a stark and much-needed reminder of this tragic chapter in human history. Beginning today, the museum will display more than 1,000 original photos and artifacts from the Auschwitz concentration camp, including shoes, prisoner outfits, bunks and barbed wire.
This exhibit comes at an important time, as the eyewitnesses of the Holocaust fade into history and polling shows that nearly 40% of Americans do not know that Auschwitz was a death camp where 1.1 million people perished. Among those between the ages of 18 and 29, the figure is 56%.
Those who do know about Auschwitz can sometimes get the wrong message. This is evident in the “Camp Auschwitz” shirt that someone wore at the Capitol insurrection and the politicians who seem to confuse the wearing of a cloth mask with the industrial-scale slaughter of 6 million human beings.
More than anything, it comes at a time when extreme voices are able to use social media to demonize and dehumanize anyone you disagree with or don’t particularly like.
One of the most dangerous misconceptions of the Holocaust was that it was conceived and implemented by a single madman and his henchmen. While they bear ultimate responsibility, it was the decades of unchecked rumors and hate-mongering that created the philosophical underpinnings to support mass murder.
If you tell enough people over time that their Jewish neighbors are no longer their neighbors but are people doing terrible things to children or controlling the world, then it becomes easier to look the other way when atrocities begin.
That’s why conspiracy theories like QAnon are so dangerous. If you think liberals or Washington elites have bad ideas, then by all means you should try to vote them out of office. But if you believe they commit ritualistic child abuse, a theory reminiscent of anti-Semitic theories of the early 20th century, then you can justify just about anything.
The Union Station exhibit shows where it can lead.