Why Auschwitz Christmas Ornaments and Birkenau Bath Towels Won't Go Away Anytime Soon

As E-commerce becomes increasingly automated, more and more Holocaust-themed merchandise will emerge

An Amazon.com screen capture showing an Auschwitz beach towel on sale, December 2, 2019
Screengrab Amazon.com via Twitter: @AuschwitzMuseum

Retail giant Amazon removed listings for holiday ornaments, bottle openers and mousepads featuring images of the Auschwitz death camp from its website on Wednesday, following social media outrage decrying the tastelessness of offering these wares in the first place.

The items were spotted by the vigilant eye of the Auschwitz Memorial Museum’s Twitter account, which called out the breach of Amazon’s ban on “products related to human tragedies and natural disasters.”

Lesser-known website Wish Shopping was similarly rebuked for its Auschwitz Christmas ornaments. It pulled down merchandise and apologized, saying that it does not endorse the sale of products that “are racially or culturally insensitive and we do our best to monitor the listings that are uploaded by sellers who use our platform.”

But now the Auschwitz Museum has taken aim at other websites that allow marketers to offer images imprinted on a range of products. Pixels.com and sister site Fine Art America, which bills itself as an “online destination for photographers, visual artists, and fine art collectors” may not have an Auschwitz category, but "Birkenau" seems to have slipped through whatever monitoring system it may have in place.

In that vein, shoppers can get photographs of death camps printed on everything from T-shirts to bath towels, yoga mats and – perhaps most inappropriately – shower curtains. 

The ongoing crusade by the Auschwitz Memorial Museum represents the Sisyphean task of policing images on online retail sites in the era of E-commerce, when mass-marketing platforms are available to anyone and everyone. 

This is by no means the first contentious incident of Holocaust-themed apparel reaching the market. In 2012, for example Urban Outfitters was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for selling a T-shirt featuring a detailing that resembles the Star of David worn by Jews during the Holocaust. Two years later, Zara similarly came under fire for selling a blue-and-white striped T-shirt with a yellow star. But today’s mass mix-and-match, open-source methods of selling products multiply the problem exponentially. 

A recent article in Wired noted that while some of the offerings may be intentionally malicious, they are more and more often the unfortunate result of an increasingly automated market. Venders try to fill as many niches as possible by manufacturing as many configurations of customizable products they can.

Paul Frosh, a professor of communications at Hebrew University, says that “the digital era has intensified the possibilities for selling offensive materials, and commercializing things that should not be commercialized.” The number of platforms available to vendors is so vast that it is inevitable that these commodities will continue to emerge, and “we’ll need to constantly police them, as the years go by and the world is less sensitized to the Shoah. It will be ongoing, just as all Holocaust education is ongoing.”

The other side of the digital coin, he adds, is that while selling these products has gotten easier, so has speaking out against them. “It is much easier to launch effective mass campaigns against the companies that do this across social media platforms, and most – especially large ones like Amazon – will respond quickly.” 

A range of accessories are available featuring images of the Auschwitz death camp available on Pixels.com
Screenshot

Frosh predicts that it will become an ongoing task for organizations like the Auschwitz Museum and Yad Vashem to speak out and say "that there are memorials that shouldn’t be commercialized, whether those doing it have evil intentions, or if they are people who just want to make a buck.”

Pawel Sawicki, press officer for the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and manager of its social media accounts, says he embraces the challenge.  

“Part of our mission is to protect the memory and dignity of all people who suffered and died,” he said. His campaigns against the disturbing products, he said, are aimed beyond the “immediate effects” of removing them from websites. Creating the level of awareness that leads to their removal “also raises public discussion and debate. It is an element of broader education about the social memory in the opportunity we have to educate people.”