Last week an Australian shopping website, Redbubble, was taken to task for selling merchandise adorned with images from the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.
Redbubble’s website boasts that it produces, “Uncommon designs on awesome stuff - A shirt with an evil cat. A phone case with a galloping donut. A tote bag with a star-surfing astronaut. Whatever your thing, you can get art you love on super well made products”. Unfortunately, it seems that for some, “their thing” is to plaster symbols of mass murder on clothing items, handbags and cushions. Most chilling was a mini-skirt printed with the ovens that incinerated tens of thousands of Europe’s Jews. The perverse dissonance of symbols of death and murder on a garment representing youth and vitality was disturbing. The use of the death motif as a fashion statement is nothing new, nor the employment of shock factor as a marketing strategy. However, a generic skull and crossbones is one thing, a site of systematic murder of Jews is quite another.
While Redbubble moved quickly to remove the offending products when challenged by officials of Auschwitz Museum, that these items should ever have been deemed acceptable raises disturbing questions. The most charitable reading is that the creators of this objectionable merchandise were ignorant of the fact that over a million people were killed at Auschwitz, including 960,000 Jews, 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 10-15,000 other nationalities. Perhaps the merchandisers did not know about the medical experiments carried out on infants, twins and dwarfs, and forced sterilizations and castrations of adults.
Recent surveys reveal a general lack of knowledge or understanding of the events of the Holocaust. In a critique of current Holocaust education trends, Dr Catherine Chatterley, Adjunct Professor of History, University of Manitoba, raised the question, ‘How do we explain the apparent paradox of a culture that appears to be suffering from “Jewish Holocaust fatigue,” and yet knows very little about the history of this specific event and the pivotal role played by antisemitism in its conception and execution?’ She uses the example of the popular education tool, Anne Frank’s Diary, which provides a sanitised and limited view of the Holocaust, de-Judaizes the story, and in effect allows people to be exposed to the Holocaust and yet learn little of the detail of the history and nothing in particular about the problem of antisemitism. Chatterley argues that, ‘what we have produced in contemporary Western culture is a general conviction, ... that we have learned the “lessons of the Holocaust” when in fact few people outside the academic field know anything in particular about the Nazi Final Solution, its systematic destruction of Jewish Europe, and the nature and history of the antisemitism responsible for this catastrophe, which continues to evolve and is now in fact a global phenomenon.’
Perhaps we prefer to live in denial of the depth of evil animating Jew hatred. The incinerator printed on the mini-skirt was the final stage of a process which began with the marginalisation, discrimination and persecution of Jews under Nazi Germany, and became industrialised once the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ was devised at the Wannsee Conference in 1942. This process of death started with the rounding up of Jews, confinement in ghettos until deportation on cattle trucks to the camp, selection for forced labour or for death. If appointed for death, they were deceived, believing they were entering showers that were in fact gas chambers. The gas killed about one third quickly. “The remainder staggered and began to scream, and struggle for air. The screaming soon change to the death rattle and in a few minutes all lay still”. (Testimony of Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Hoss).1.
After the victims were killed, Sonderkommando prisoners dragged the corpses out of the gas chambers. They cut off the women’s hair and removed all metal dental work and jewelry. Then they burned the corpses in pits, on pyres, or in the crematorium furnaces. (Until September 1942, some were buried in mass graves; these corpses were burned from September to November 1942.) Bones that did not burn completely were ground to powder with pestles and then dumped, along with the ashes, in the rivers Soła and Vistula and in nearby ponds, or strewn in the fields as fertilizer, or used as landfill on uneven ground and in marshes.
The horrors of the gas chambers, the ovens, the processing of corpses and indeed the whole scheme devised by Hitler and the well educated Nazi elite is beyond comprehension. Not to mention the collaboration of many European countries and the relative silence of the rest of the world. Rather than soft-pedal the evil of the Holocaust, is it not better to at least attempt to face the reality of what occurred? Perhaps it is the failure to convey the true horror and inhumanity of the Holocaust that results in the grotesque exploitation of symbols of Jewish annihilation for commercial gain. While the mini-skirt may be a trite example, the worrying spectre of white supremacists openly parading on European and American streets, the murder of Jews in places of worship, the blatant denial of the Holocaust in much of the Muslim world and the increasing acceptance of antisemitism in political discourse, all suggest that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learnt.
1. Michael Berenbaum, The World Must Know, The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, New York, Boston, 1993, p.139.