Look closer at this liquor bottle from the ROM’s learning centre

No, it wasn’t found in the Auschwitz concentration camp, nor in the Birkenau death camp. In terms of objects associated with the Holocaust, it’s not typical. But it reveals a lot about what was happening just before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.

The bottle is from the Jakob Haberfeld Steam Vodka and Liquor Factory in Poland. It’s unassumingly simple: made of glass with Oświęcim, the name of the Polish town that the Germans renamed Auschwitz, in raised letters adding a bit of texture.

This bottle and many others like it could have been part of the New York World’s Fair in 1939 where Felicia and Alfons Haberfeld showcased their distillery’s goods in the Polish Pavilion. On their way home, off the coast of Scotland, the British Royal Navy informed the couple they could not return home, because Hitler’s troops had invaded Poland.

The Haberfelds had built part of the railroad leading out of Oświęcim in order to send their spirits to Europe. That same line would transport over a million people in the opposite direction to their deaths. The Haberfelds were Polish Jews.

This bottle is a reminder that, less than a century ago, there was a thriving Jewish community in the same town that we now associate with Nazi concentration and death camps.

As the world commemorates 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Birkenau death camp on January 27, we’re faced with an unsettling fact: the majority of people under age 35 have never heard of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The bottle not only symbolizes one of the lowest points in human history, but difficult contemporary themes like forced mass migration, refugees, war and bigotry.

Where to find it

The bottle is on the main floor of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Learning Centre and is viewable as part of the museum’s School Visits, a series of guided tours and hands-on labs linked to the Ontario curriculum.

Nearby are related objects that are part of a lesson called Genocide And Crimes Against Humanity: there’s a Star of David armband, a tin of chocolates for German soldiers – from a company that’s still in operation – and a paper note outlining a brief history of the Haberfeld Distillery. There’s also money imprinted with swatstikas that was made by prisoners in a camp. It’s an example of Nazi propaganda, giving the impression that prisoners were workers who were being compensated when they were in fact being worked to death.

Next to the bottle students will see a Hebrew prayer book, also from Auschwitz. Such books were forbidden in the concentration camp. It was hidden in the camp during the war and brought back by the original owner, who immigrated to Toronto.

Students can pick up some of these objects to understand what was happening in Poland before and during the war. But these things aren’t just artifacts – they’re also evidence.

“This is key when it comes to denial and conspiracy theories regarding the Holocaust,” says Jacques Lavoie, a retired ROM educator who designed the program. “Students can zoom in on a very specific story that gives them a human layer rather than bulldozing them with dates or statistics.”

Students also learn about the Armenian genocide, the Mayan genocide in Guatemala and the Indian Residential Schools in Canada.

Why it stands out

The bottle caught my attention because it’s so unassuming. Lavoie purchased it for the museum to show students what life was like in Oświęcim before the war and after the Nazis took over the Haberfeld home and shut down the factory.

It’s not until you look closely and read the accompanying story of the Haberfelds that a full picture comes into view. The bottle is a reminder of the horrors of hatred and nationalist fervour of a time before the war in Poland and at New York City’s World Fair, when people came together to marvel at a shared future.

Before the Nazis invaded Poland, Oświęcim had a thriving Jewish community with 30 shuls (synagogues) and over 8,000 Jews. Sixty per cent of the town was Jewish. At the centre of all this was the Haberfeld home and distillery – it was one of the town’s largest employers, meaning people of different backgrounds interacted with each other. One of the most prominent buildings was the Haberfield house. Historians have described it as “the greatest private home in the city,” and it became a landmark during the war when Nazi officers converted it into their headquarters.

Before the war, the local Jewish community was highly educated. Many spoke German as well as Polish and almost all were urbanites that had never lived on a farm. This artifact is a surviving fragment of that time.

It also represents survival and the act of remembering. Toronto has the largest population of Jewish survivors, outside of Israel. According to the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, within the next five years there won’t be any first-hand witness of the horrors of the Holocaust alive.

Prior to the Second World War, the Canadian government refused entry to over 900 refugees on board the MS St. Louis steam liner. Most were Jews fleeing persecution in Germany.

The bigger picture

There are no shortage of books and movies about the Holocaust and yet surveys tell us an entire generation know little to nothing about concentration camps, Jewish ghettos and death camps.

According to a 2019 survey by the Azrieli Foundation, almost a quarter of Canadian millennials (age 18 to 34) “haven’t heard or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust.” And 52 per cent “cannot name even one concentration camp or ghetto.” While “62 per cent of millennials did not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.”

Unlike the refugees on the St. Louis, Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld were allowed to return to Ellis Island in the United States. The only thing tougher than not returning home was enduring the dread of not knowing what was happening to their loved ones in Poland, including their two-year-old daughter Franciszka Henryka. They had left her in the care of her maternal grandmother.  For the rest of the war, the young couple did everything in their power to rescue her. Sadly, weeks before the end of the war, Franciszka and her grandmother were murdered in the Belzec death camp.

After a brief stay in Ellis Island, the Haberfelds made the U.S. their new home. In 1948, Felicia and Alfons gave birth to Stephen Haberfeld who would grow up to be one of 17 special prosecutors who investigated the Watergate scandal that lead to Nixon’s impeachment. When we think about the Holocaust, this bottle is a reminder of the future potential that was brutally gassed and killed.

That’s what makes this deceptively simple artifact from 1939 feel so urgent. How we act in response to a global humanitarian crisis as a city and nation will impact future generations. It’s not just about the past, but ensuring we don’t make the same mistakes in the present.

Look Closer is a column in which a writer visits museum, gallery or public art exhibition and explores a specific artwork or object that jumped out at them. Read more here.


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