Beijing exhibition brings horrors of the Holocaust to the East

Crematorium ovens, gas canisters and images of a gate emblazoned "Arbeit Macht Frei" instantly evoke the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in the West but many Chinese remain ignorant of the Holocaust, which for them is overshadowed by Japanese atrocities before and during World War II.

The first ever exhibition in China devoted to Nazi crimes against humanity has sought to draw more attention to it, with some success: in less than two months, more than 70,000 people visited "Auschwitz: death camp" in Beijing.

Featuring disturbing photographs of victims of Nazi Germany, displayed in glass cases along with striped prisoners' outfits -- another emblem of the carnage -- the exhibition has provided an alternative focus in a country where attention remains fixed on Japan's wartime actions.

There are more than 200 museums and memorials in China dedicated to abuses by the Imperial Japanese Army, assistant curator Li Zongyuan told AFP.

"What shocks most visitors is the fact that the Nazis sent the women and children to the gas chambers," said Li -- before detailing Japanese war crimes such as the sexual slavery of thousands of women or the use of toxic gas.

During their education, Chinese have little opportunity to learn in detail about the crimes of the Third Reich, Hu Dekun, deputy director of the China Society for the Study of the History of World War II, told AFP.

"In the history books in high school, this war is told very briefly, even at university," said Hu.

Exhibition visitor Yan Jikai, from the northern province of Shanxi, admitted he only became aware of German actions during World War II after watching "The Great Escape", the 1963 prisoner of war drama starring Steve McQueen.

"I saw this film twice," he said, before praising the German Chancellor Willy Brandt for kneeling in contrition before a memorial to the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw in 1970.

In contrast, he said, "the Japanese have never really acknowledged their mistakes and they even continue to go to the Yasukuni Shrine" in Tokyo, considered by Japan's neighbours a symbol of its militaristic past and a resting place for the souls of known war criminals. In Japan it is regarded as the resting place for more than two million soldiers caught up in conflict.

Some 1.1 million people, the vast majority of them Jews, were systematically starved, tortured and murdered between 1940 and 1945 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Between 70,000 and 75,000 non-Jewish Poles also perished there, as did 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 10,000-15,000 other inmates, according to data from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum.

Recent incidents have highlighted ignorance of Nazism in parts of Asia.

In the Indonesian city of Bandung a coffee shop opened in 2011 decorated with Nazi emblems and displaying a portrait of Hitler. Last month Japan's deputy prime minister Taro Aso refused to resign after he suggested that Japan should follow Nazi Germany's example when reforming its constitution.

According to Li, some 7,000 Chinese visited Auschwitz last year, "a very small number when compared to the number of Chinese tourists in Europe".

The Beijing exhibition emphasised Shanghai's historical role as a refuge for thousands of Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Europe, and celebrated He Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna who saved thousands of Jews by giving them Chinese visas between 1938 to 1940.

It was hosted by the Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, on the outskirts of the capital.

The museum stands at the end of the Marco Polo bridge, where on July 7, 1937 a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops served as a pretext for Tokyo's forces to seize Beijing, triggering the Sino-Japanese war.

Visitor Li Jie, a student at Beijing Forestry University, also contrasted Japan's attitude with that of Germany, while casting China in the role of victim.

"In my opinion, China back then was a very weak country, the Chinese were like the Jews and Poles, with no way to resist."