For Rositta Kenigsberg, the most haunting images in the traveling exhibition “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” appear near the end, in between the Adolf Hitler campaign posters and anti-Semitic caricatures of conniving Jews. At the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Dania Beach, eight black-and-white photos taken in Eisenach, Germany, hang against a long divider wall painted black and red. In the images, hundreds of Jews young and old, carrying luggage and expressing fear, are being deported to ghettos. Eventually, those prisoners would be sent to death camps, says Kenigsberg, the Holocaust center’s president.
More than the frenzied rhetoric of Hitler and his campaign to exterminate the Jewish race, it is these unornamented photos of Jewish victims that Kenigsberg, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, finds the most chilling.
“To drive a human being to hate to such an extent, it’s the question I’m still asking after so many years,” Kenigsberg says. “Propaganda is a terrible weapon in the wrong hands. It’s mind-boggling, and today, we are even still hearing about Holocaust deniers.”
Through 100 campaign posters, photos of rallies and illustrations showing muscular Aryan men, the destructive influence of Nazi propaganda is explored in “State of Deception,” on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Disseminated by the Nazis’ Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, this agitprop targeted women, farmers and other vulnerable classes of society, selling the idea that the Nazi party brought stability, strength and prosperity to an economy foundering in the years after World War I and the Great Depression. Jews, considered an inferior race by the Nazis, threatened that stability.
Broken into four chronological sections, the show spans 1918, the start of Germany’s Weimar Republic, through 1948, when the Nuremberg Trials prosecuted Nazi propagandists for crimes against humanity. The propaganda is powerful and relentless: a circa-1935 photo shows Hitler inside a German classroom filled with students. In another photo, hundreds of uniformed Hitler Youth stand in formation. Displayed near the photo is a children’s board game, titled “Jews Out!” which calls to mind a debauched version of Life: The first player to drive Jews out of a walled city wins the game.
“It’s a pretty scary idea that kids were exposed to propaganda so young,” says Sonia Booth, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum program coordinator. “It makes you question the things we take for granted in childhood, but also how [the Nazi party] targeted vulnerable populations.”
The exhibit offers many examples of the brutally effective Nazi propaganda machine. One section’s bar graph charts the Nazi party’s grasp for power within Germany’s parliament, rising from 3 percent of the popular vote to 33.3 percent within 12 years. Another propaganda poster from 1943 assigns fault to the victimized: A large hand points an accusatory finger at a caricature of an overweight, long-nosed Jew wearing a yellow star. “He is to blame for the war!” giant block letters read atop the poster. All this is happening, of course, while railcars are shipping Jews to death camps.
“State of Deception” is the debut exhibit at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center, a 26,000-square-foot warehouse near Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A 4,000-square-foot side gallery contains the exhibit, but the rest of the warehouse is mostly empty save two symbols of the war: a 30-ton Sherman tank used by American troops to liberate death camps and a Polish railcar that sent Jews to crematoriums.
Kenigsberg says the railcar and tank, both part of the Holocaust Center’s permanent collection, represent “tragedy” and “triumph,” respectively, and that Nazi propaganda shares modern parallels with fake news tactics used by political parties today.
“You have to listen carefully to fake news. If it sounds and looks untrue, it probably is untrue,” Kenigsberg says. “The key is figuring out how to better teach our children what propaganda is.”
Until March, the museum will host a lineup of propaganda-themed programming, starting with a 3-5 p.m. Feb. 11 talk by “State of Deception” curator Steven Luckert. A “Power of Propaganda” panel will follow on Feb. 25, and the discussion “Pursuing Nazi Propagandists and Other Nazi Criminals” will finish the series on March 18.
“State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” will open Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center, 303 N. Federal Highway, in Dania Beach. The exhibit will close May 6. Admission is $5-$10, free for Holocaust survivors and liberators. Call 954-929-5690 or go to HDEC.org.
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