NEW YORK >> Each weathered piece of history set off a mental reel of flickering images for Roman Kent.
The boxcar stationed outside the entrance of the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Battery Park in Manhattan. It looked like the one that had brought him to Auschwitz.
“I woke up, and I was surrounded by a hundred people,” he recalled. “Thank God I was with my family, but I couldn’t move, and we were packed like that for four days and three nights. There was no pail for relieving yourself. Water to drink was a problem.”
Inside the museum, he spotted a caldron. It was the type used to make the thin turnip soup that was fed once a day to the famished, along with an ounce and a quarter of bread.
“You calculated when to get in line,” he said. “At the end of the line, you got more vegetables in the watered down soup, but you risked that they may not have any soup left.”
On May 8, the museum will open an exhibition to the public that will, unavoidably, also open wounds. Titled “Auschwitz, Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” it will tell the story of that emblematic death camp, and the Holocaust, with 700 artifacts, most borrowed from Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people were killed, 1 million of them Jews. The traveling exhibition, largely produced by Musealia, a Spanish for-profit company, with the cooperation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, was first seen in Madrid over a 14-month stretch by more than 600,000 people.
On Wednesday, three floors of the exhibition and its accompanying explanatory panels and film clips were in place, and the museum permitted a reporter to tour with Kent, a camp survivor and chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.
Kent, 90, and frail, was subdued, but resolute as he was escorted around the galleries.
That changed when he confronted a dozen battered suitcases taken from arriving Jews about to be split into those who would work and those who would die immediately. Kent remembered the SS officers shouting at his family, “Mach schnell! Mach schnell!”
“Hurry up. Hurry up.”
The beatings of the men. The beatings of the women. The biting dogs. The horses trampling the prisoners. This was the last time he saw his mother, he recalled, as the prisoners were divided. For a moment he could not bring himself to talk.
The museum expects to see many visitors like Kent who live in the New York City area, which, in 2017, had 50,000 Holocaust survivors. Many of them have died since then, and those who remain are in their late 80s or their 90s.
Museum officials say the exhibition’s effort to depict the brutalities of the past is an urgent one at a time of rising anti-Semitism, which was recently underscored by the deadly attacks against Jews in San Diego and Pittsburgh.
Elizabeth Edelstein, the Jewish Heritage Museum’s vice president for education, said the museum regularly talks with survivors about “what aspects of this painful history they feel should be explored, how content reflects their own experiences.” Such conversations prompted the museum to include stories of the “myriad ways ordinary people responded to the unfolding genocide, including inspiring stories of resistance, resilience, courage and altruism.”
Along with activists like Elie Wiesel and Benjamin Meed, Kent spent much of his adult life calling public attention to what had been done to the Jews after the relative silence for decades after the war. He has been back to Auschwitz — now a museum — near Krakow, Poland, several times and has seen these artifacts in that pained setting.
He was raised in comfort in the industrial city of Lodz, Poland, where his father, Emanuel, owned a large textile factory. Wealth did not shield the family from the Nazis, though, and they were forced to relocate to an overcrowded ghetto. His father died of malnutrition. Kent; his mother, Sonia; younger brother and two older sisters were discovered in a hideout behind an apartment wall and deported to the sprawling Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in the middle of 1944.
Arriving when he was 15, Kent does not recall precisely how long he was in Auschwitz. “One day in Auschwitz was a month, one week a year, one month was an eternity,” he said. “How many eternities can one have in one’s lifetime?”
After being transferred to other camps, Kent and his brother, Leon, were liberated by the 3rd U.S. Army while on a death march to Dachau. The brothers later reunited with their sisters, who also survived. But one, Dasza, sickened at Auschwitz, died a couple of months later in a Swedish hospital. His oldest sister, Renia, remained in Sweden.
The brothers immigrated to the United States in 1946 as part of a government program to admit 5,000 orphans. They chose to live in Atlanta, where they attended Emory University. Leon became a neurosurgeon. Kent thrived in the export-import business, and he met his wife, Hannah, on a visit to the New York area, where they eventually settled. They had two children and three grandchildren. His wife died in 2017.
During his visit to the museum, as he moved from gallery to gallery, Kent paused to gaze at a section of a barracks, at fence posts braced with barbed wire — “most of the time they were electrified,” he said tartly — at a triple-tiered bunk bed, striped uniforms and the confiscated shoes of women and children.
There was even a chess set made by an inmate in 1943. The box to hold the pieces was once a sardine can.
Kent said he had no such diversions.
“I was too busy trying to be alive,” he said.
At another gallery, he was struck once again by the demonic efficiency the Germans displayed in creating an assembly line to exterminate Jews. The gallery contained a shower head from a building that the Nazis billed as a “disinfection” house, used for removing lice. Actually it was a killing chamber. Here on display was a rusty canister for the cyanide-based Zyklon B, a pesticide adapted to poison humans. There was an ingenious chute where the pellets, which turned to gas, were dropped from portholes in the roof so they could be retrieved by gas-mask wearing Sonderkommandos — workers, usually Jews, forced into these jobs — after the victims expired. Other Sonderkommandos carried out the corpses.
“How is it possible for a man to be so cruel,” Kent murmured.
One display case had metal hatches from a furnace in a crematory where corpses were turned to ash, then dumped in a nearby river. In a film clip, a surviving former Sonderkommando recalled hearing the women being gassed muttering a prayer, “Shema Yisroel,” as they clawed futilely for air.
As detailed and accurate as the museum exhibition is designed to be, Kent said nothing, not even a visit to the site today, can convey the horrors that occurred there.
“What happened in Auschwitz, no human being can comprehend,” Kent said after his tour. “It is beyond comprehension.”