The guardians of Holocaust memory worked up a furious sweat earlier this week with news that outdoor misting stations were installed at Auschwitz to cool off visitors waiting in the baking sun to get into a place better known as hell on Earth.
The unseemly sight of people taking showers with their clothes on at Auschwitz became a trending topic on social media. Some were good natured and forgiving about it, but many were so overheated, they could have used a shower. For them, such images defiled the dead.
After all, having a shower at Auschwitz was the pretense that led millions of Jews and others to their deaths. Instead of water they were treated to poisonous gas. For this reason, death camps, and the images around them, are sacred. Their purpose is to preserve memory, not inspire mockery. What’s next at Auschwitz: separating husbands and wives, taking children away from their parents, having visitors slip on striped uniforms upon entry?
Yet, others more soberly realized that officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum neither wished to trample upon profound sensitivities nor offend the dead. More than one million people visited Auschwitz during the first seven months of this year, which set an attendance record. Clearly the museum is doing something right.
Spraying visitors with mists of water during a scorching Polish summer was most certainly not an act of simulation. Nor was the museum trying to replicate the ungodly temperatures of those cremating ovens by lining people up in the high heat. Auschwitz, after all, is not a theme park. No one visits to vicariously experience the illusion of dying.
This is not the first time benign intentions aggrieved the gatekeepers of Holocaust memory. When a memorial was being erected in Berlin in 2003, the corporation that supplied the anti-graffiti material, Degussa, was discovered to have had ties to the company that manufactured Zyklon B, the gas that, in lieu of water, wafted through the vents of those actual showers at Auschwitz. Today, Degussa is a company that has contributed toward Holocaust restitution.
Yet many people still demanded that Degussa’s chemicals not be used to coat the walls of the museum. For them, the crimes of the Nazis carries long memories. Gas once used to exterminate Jews never dissipates; a whiff of it always remains.
Holocaust imagery has worked its way into feature films with similar consequences. An entire catalogue of symbols and metaphors has evolved into its own aesthetics. “Schindler’s List” has a scene where Jews are crowded into the showers of Auschwitz, but much to the audience’s surprise, out comes water. In “Shine,” a Holocaust survivor reimagines an ordinary gate that surrounds his home as barbed wire. In “The Pawnbroker,” a survivor stumbles into a crowded subway as if he is back in a cattle car; an NYPD patrolman materializes as Gestapo. Meanwhile, the notorious SS, in “The Producers,” are depicted as campy buffoons.
TV show creator Larry David has made a career flirting with the iconography of the Holocaust. A “soup Nazi” appears in “Seinfeld”; the word “survivor,” and who constitutes one, and the tattoos on their arms, are played to comic effect on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Last year the Spanish retailer Zara was understandably excoriated for selling striped children’s pajamas that resembled a concentration camp uniform — Jewish star and all.
The use of these images is richly metaphorical, often clumsy and callous, and sometimes just plainly funny. But are they also rudely misapplied and misappropriated? Even sincere efforts to proclaim “never again” can serve to trivialize and desecrate.
Yet, the furor over the Auschwitz showers, in the same way that some decried the “soup Nazi,” suggests an implied ownership in these images — and the operation of a Holocaust censor, if you will — making them forbidden if ever misused. Over the years a rigid sanctimony has prevailed around Holocaust symbols; train tracks,cattle cars, gas, tattoos and, yes, even showers, began to lose their ordinary meaning and instead conjured up associations with evil. A freak accident of history demanded a patent on all things relating to the Holocaust.
Now decades after the liberation of the camps, with the survivor community nearly gone, the hold that these symbols once had is more tenuous, the metaphors they evoke not as sharply felt or, for some, even entirely understood. Yes, the Nazis were evil both in their intentions and their methods. But their madness cannot forever warp the meaning of gestures and symbols that are meant to convey the rituals of regular life.
After all, gas is used primarily to heat houses, and trains mostly run on tracks not destined for death. Perhaps it’s finally time for a shower to be just a shower — even in Auschwitz.