Bruce Ratner learned the lessons of the Holocaust at an early age.
“It was so much a part of my growing up that it’s almost hard to describe,” Ratner said.
Now he’s helping New York to remember — and learn from — the horror.
Ratner, a famed developer and chairman of the board of trustees of the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial, grew up in Cleveland with an awareness of the slaughter of his ancestors. Ratner’s father sponsored many Holocaust survivors for jobs and Ratner and his brother would accompany his mother as she made the rounds, assisting people in need.
“She would look for apartments for survivors. On Friday nights she would bring them to meals,” Ratner recalled. His brother, Michael, became a world-famous human rights activist and attorney before his death in 2016.
Ratner, who developed Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, continues his family’s mission on May 8. That’s when the museum he helps lead will present an exhibit whose name stresses the relevance: “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.”
This will be the most comprehensive Holocaust exhibition about Auschwitz ever presented in North America. An international team of experts, 74 years after the liberation of the concentration camp, uses 700 original objects and 400 photographs to tell the tale of the largest documented mass murder in human history.
“There is something about the authenticity of artifacts that allows you to feel,” Ratner said. “Shoes in particular are interesting. Two very meaningful shoe aspects are here.” He mentions a pair of red women’s shoes, likely from a woman who died. And then there are the shoes of a four-year-old boy, who took his shoes off before walking into the showers that would kill him.
Before becoming a patron and advocate of the exhibition, Ratner was a visitor. George Klein, a museum trustee, recommended the show, a traveling exhibition which was originated in Madrid and conceived by Musealia and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. So Ratner traveled to Spain with Abraham Foxman, the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League. They were stunned by what they saw — and now the exhibition is moving to New York for the first stop in North America. Following the stop here, the exhibition is expected to continue to other cities around the world.
“We were so moved by both its impact — its memorable and emotional impact — and the accuracy,” he said. “We thought it should come to New York City.” He added the exhibit particularly speaks to those who, like Ratner, come from families where relatives fled places full of violence, hate, economic turmoil or racist governments. In this era, one in which refugee numbers are exceeding those after World War II, there’s a fresh resonance to these issues.
“History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but we learn from history,” Ratner said.
“We have a world where democracy is under attack,” Ratner insisted, “and it’s not only the last two years. But over the last 10 years we have so many countries which we thought were going to basically remain democratic, which have now been taken over by dictators essentially.”
That happened in Germany, too, and Ratner said that traveling through the exhibit and learning about that reality becomes a shared experience for visitors. “Walking through the exhibit creates a certain community that makes the artifacts that much more powerful,” he said, pointing to moments where he saw visitors standing quietly around an item and then wondering what exactly that was.
The exhibition, running through Jan. 3, 2020, underscores what hate and discrimination can do, Ratner said. The relevance stings.
“This still happens today,” he said. “We all thought — there was a famous expression ‘Never Again.’ That was a wish, a vision, and it hasn’t happened.”