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Mocking the Holocaust

Mocking the Holocaust

There is a recent trend to trivialize and mock the Holocaust through art. What’s behind these shocking depictions?


Glimpsed through the front windshield of a car approaching Los Angeles, the famous letters of the “HOLLYWOOD” sign spell out “HOLOCAUST” instead. A video depicts naked concentration camp inmates playing tag in front of crematoria, while another shows an elderly Holocaust survivor entering a tattoo parlor – and asking to have his concentration camp tattoo renewed.

These tasteless images are part of a government-funded art exhibition that recently opened in Estonia’s Tartu Art Museum. Dedicating to “remembering” the Holocaust in various ways, including “through the prism of humor,” the show is advertised with a poster that resembles an iconic photo taken after the liberation of Auschwitz – except in this version, the Jewish prisoners are well-fed and dressed, and grin slyly, menacingly, at the camera.

The show has sparked outrage in Estonia and beyond – it’s been criticized by Estonia’s tiny Jewish community, as well as by Estonia’s Georgian and Muslim communities, and by Israelis and Christians abroad. So far, the museum has defended its depictions of the Holocaust. It’s hardly alone. A number of representations of the Holocaust in recent years have shown it in an irreverent, even mocking manner, and the trend is accelerating. As more extreme modes of looking at the Holocaust become acceptable, new artists are seeking fresh ways to shock.

New artists are seeking fresh ways to shock.

Take the case of Zbigniew Libera, one of the artists whose work is currently on display in Estonia. Back in 1996 he sparked international horror by creating a Holocaust Lego set: including Lego crematoria, Lego chimneys, Lego dead bodies, Lego pieces showing Nazis beating skeletal Jews, Lego Nazis torturing Jews with electro-shocks, and piles of severed Lego limbs. If he meant to shock, he succeeded: Libera was banned from exhibiting his artwork at the Venice Biennale, and the Lego toy company tried to persuade him to stop exhibiting his piece. But today, Libera’s Holocaust Lego set is considered mainstream. It’s been exhibited around the world, including in 2002 in New York’s Jewish Museum. In 2012, Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art purchased the piece for its permanent collection, calling it “one of the most important works of contemporary Polish art.”

A similar process of acceptance met one of the videos in the current Estonia exhibition: Artur Zmijewski’s film of naked Jews playing tag inside a concentration camp was considered so shameful a mere three years ago that it was banned from being shown inside Berlin’s prestigious Martin-Gropius Bau exhibition hall. Today it has been embraced by mainstream artists and critics alike. In fact, much of Zmijewski’s work uses images of the Holocaust, and those outside the world of agit-prop art might be shocked at what is now the new norm in dealing with the Holocaust in the cutting edge art world.

A New York Times reviewer once noted of Zmijewski that “a weird…sadism animates many of his works,” and this quality – often aimed at the Holocaust – has helped propel him to fame. An early success was the art instillation “80064”, displayed in Tufts University’s Art Gallery in Medford, Massachusetts, in 2006. “80064” features Zmijewski badgering a confused 92-year old victim of Auschwitz to get the fading tattooed numbers on his arm re-inked; when the fearful man hesitates, Zmejewski is seen bullying him to complete the task.

“80064” and other projects boosted his reputation so much that in 2012, Zmijewski was appointed curator of the prestigious Berlin Biennale in 2012. There, he displayed the video of naked Jews playing tag now on show in Estonia and solicited a number of other art pieces that dealt with the Holocaust, Jews, and Israel. (One controversial element of his Biennale was a forum for extremist anti-Semitic and terrorist groups to speak publicly.)

Is It Anti-Semitic?

What’s behind these shocking depictions of the Holocaust? For some, pure anti-Semitism seems to be a motivation. That seems to be the case of one artistic competition currently underway: on January 24, 2015, two cartoonist associations in Iran announced the Second International Holocaust Cartoons Contest, soliciting artwork that mocks or denies the Holocaust. The contest, which enjoys the apparent backing of the Iranian government, is Iran’s response to the use of pictures of Mohammed by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo (the same publication whose staff was massacred by Islamic extremists in Paris on January 7, 2015), and promises a hefty prize to the winners.

For others, the relentless use of Holocaust imagery seems to desensitize people to its horrors. That was the rational given by the artist Tom Sachs in 2002, after his exhibit “Prada Deathcamp” caused outrage when it was shown at New York’s Jewish Museum. A model of Auschwitz made out of a Prada hatbox, Sachs said he was “using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion.” The Holocaust did not interest him, he explained: “My agenda isn’t about making a point about the Holocaust. I don’t think any of the artists in the show are… We’re mostly in our 30s and 40s, and we have a certain distance from those events.”

Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff seemed similarly disengaged. On a visit to Majdanek concentration camp in 1989, the artist stole some ashes of murdered victims from one of the crematorium ovens there. In 2010, the artist decided to "do something" with these stolen human remains. He mixed the ashes with water and used it as paint. The resulting canvass was displayed as part of an installation called "Memory Works" in the Swedish city of Lund in 2012. Although Hausswolff was investigated by police for tampering with buried human remains, the owner of the gallery was unapologetic, saying only "this exhibition raises a lot of questions, and I think people should make up their own mind."

This desensitization has effects far beyond the art world: depicting the Holocaust as something ordinary or funny makes it easier to trivialize it or rationalize it away. “I can see the tendency of revision, to try to rewrite the Holocaust,” says Inna Rogatchi, a filmmaker and activist and co-founder of the Rogatchi Foundation. “It’s so black and white, people feel uncomfortable with that.” Current artistic representations of the Holocaust try to normalize the event, making it easier to deal with today. The results can make some uncomfortable.

In 2003, for instance, the animal-rights group PETA launched a call for ethical treatment of farm animals called “Holocaust on Your Plate.” Consisting of 60 panels of pictures showing both Jews being murdered in the Holocaust and animals reared on farms, PETA asked people to consider becoming vegetarian, and issued a call to the Jewish community to back their initiative. When the Anti-Defamation League criticized PETA’s exhibit as insensitive to the memories of those murdered in the Holocaust, PETA stood by its comparison.

The results of mocking and using the Holocaust are desensitization and confusion. A 2014 survey showed that two thirds of people world-wide haven’t heard of the Holocaust, think it is a myth, or believe it to be greatly exaggerated. One poll showed that 17% of university students in India admired Hitler as an ideal type of leader. In 2014, a mayoral candidate in Ontario, Canada, praised Hitler’s “leadership qualities” – then stood by his comments in the face of criticism, insisting that Hitler’s qualities could be “positive” in different circumstances.

“Stop insulting the dead.” – Elie Wiesel

At times, confusion about the Holocaust can tip over into anti-Jewish stereotypes. That seems to have been the case in 2014, when southern California’s Rialto Unified School District used classic anti-Jewish terminology to ask eighth graders to write an essay on whether the Holocaust “was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.” (The school district withdrew the assignment after a public outcry.)

Twenty five years ago, responding to artistic representations that he felt trivialized the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel explained why it was so hard to represent by quoting a story written by a fellow survivor. In it, a young Jew is told by an SS officer, “One day you will speak of all this, but your story will fall on deaf ears. Some will mock you, others will try to redeem themselves through you. You will cry out to the heavens and they will refuse to listen or to believe….”

In the past quarter century, the bounds of what is acceptable to say about the murder of six million Jews have only been pushed further. As the Holocaust is relentlessly misused, trivialized, even mocked, what can we do in response today? Elie Wiesel’s advice from 25 years ago is even more relevant to us today. Study the Holocaust, he urged; educate yourself about its horrors. Then, “Listen to the survivors and respect their wounded sensibility. Open yourselves to their scarred memory, and mingle your tears with theirs,” Wiesel urged. “And,” he implored, “stop insulting the dead.”

February 14, 2015

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Visitor Comments: 29

(22) Miriam, May 1, 2017 1:16 PM

Eisav soneh liyaakov

It is always interesting to read the comments on an article that hits deep and sharp into our most basic human values, feelings, morals and ethics. How abhorrent and how totally clueless to create such art. It can only do harm. However, I want to remind everyone about a fundamental premise of galus, exile-eisav, the gentiles, will always hate yaakov, the Jewish people. It is a siblng rivalry that will endure until moshiach arrives. Gd also promises multiple times in the Torah that if we stray from learning Torah, doing mitzvos, living a Torah lifestyle etc, anti semitism will rare its ugly head ad a reminder to come back to Hashem our Gd. Yes the art is horrific. But calling it such does nothing else stop it. The only way to stop antisemitism is to do mitzvos, learn Torah, visit often, and help bring moshiach, bmheira biyameinu amen!

(21) Tonna, February 1, 2017 6:23 PM

the performing arts

Calling something that offends and trivializes the unimaginable horrors that those souls endured, a "performing art" is totally abhorrent to me. This is not art and the act of calling it that does not make it so.

(20) Kathleen Dahnke Nottestad, August 28, 2016 11:15 PM

God gave mankind free will - good bad and indifferent

Not believing the Holocaust truly happened is to ensure we will again experience a mad man who people feared and followed because they knew they too could be next!! I believe such a mad man is now one step away from becoming President of the USA.
on one of your sites I read a women frightened by watching Trump and knowing deep down inside she had seen such a man as Trump in Hilter, he has a whole party behind him - we now live in a free country but he has said he will militerized our police forces as soon as he is President!! What free country needs this? he has used every loop hole in our legal system to be a very wealthy man - their are those that when they see $$$$ signs they are hooked and their minds will follow! Roosevelt did NOT come to the aid of the Jews he entered the war after Japan attacked and Hitler declared war on the USA!! So I'd like to say I can't believe what is transpiring in the USA now the main enemy will if Trump pulls off the Unthinkable and Hitler will once again rear it's hate filled goals. He lies about everything won't show his taxes probably because of ties with Russia. Plus, by not doing so he should be disqualified to run - BUT same old same old he has clout!!
As for the Art that is in poor taste to say the least consider the source - it's a given God granted free will to all and if we don't like their art we need to put forth OUR OWN ART - all God has provided for our enjoyment - sunsets sunrises gentle rains enriching our acreas of farm land yielding food for mankind and Put a name of one who was NOT fortunate to have lived to see the good GOD has created and put in place for mankind to enjoy one of HITLERS victims was a farmer - farm scenes in those farmers name those who perished for no other reason but that people were impressed by Heaven only knows WHY?! for the HITLERS of the world in the USA Trump! NOW put into place art done for those who deserved to live but a mad man destroyed their dreams! Dedicated to :astory!

(19) Devorah, March 25, 2016 12:07 AM

Inhumane Art

An excerpt from Hannah Arendt's "Life of the Mind." P176-177 "Nihilism is but the other side of Conventionalism; it's creed consists of negations of the current so called positive values to which it remains bound. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and values by searching out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever present danger of thinking. But that danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living, but on the contrary, out of the desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary. By shielding people from the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct be at a given time in a given Society............The ease which such a reversal can take place under certain conditions that everybody was fast asleep when it occurred..." Thou shalt not kill becomes kill everyone and thou shalt not bear false witness becomes lies on those who have integrity and ludicrous attacks against the good people. In other words bad is good and good is bad. No good deed goes unpunished. If they attack Holocaust Survivors we are indeed witnessing the annihilation of what little humanity we have left, adaptation and complete endorsement of the rise of the 4th Reicht.

(18) Anonymous, March 16, 2016 12:57 AM


I do not want the world to go back to what it used to be. Why are people treating the Holocaust as a joke? It's not funny at all. I have met Holocaust Survivors before, when I was in third grade, one or two years after I became interested in the subject, I met the first Holocaust Survivor I was ever going to meet. He is certainly a extraordinarily brave man. I learned a huge lesson from that, and it that the Holocaust is not a joke. That it is a tragedy, that it is a horrific thing that happened in the past and must never ever happen again. I already knew that but meeting a man who survived that horrific genocide put the lesson in my head. Why are people joking about, laughing at, and mocking the Holocaust and by extension the dead victims and the survivors of the Holocaust, men, women and children that were afflicted by it. I think I would have never survived the Holocaust, I think I would have either complained too much or of I somehow didn't complain, I'd be too weak to work and I would have most likely been sent to the gas chambers, shot, or worse since my sister and I are twins, although fraternal ones, and in the Holocaust, that would have been a good thing, we would have been experimented on! I am also Jewish so if I did live back then, then that would have happened to me too. My family was lucky, we immigrated from Germany during the first wave of German immigration, during the 1860's, we had money, and we also immigrant about 65-75 years before the Holocaust even happened. I can't believe that the Holocaust is being treated as a joke. The lesson we learned from the Holocaust is that the Jews should never trust the world to help us and that when push comes to shove, only Israel will help us, and since I learned about it the betrayal of Israel's own agent, Jonathan Pollard, I can't even take that 100% for granted anymore, I am 95% sure that Israel would help us though. I thank god that I didn't live back then.

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