How a German Political Stunt Using Holocaust Victims’ Remains Went Disastrously Wrong

An art activist group wanted to warn politicians off working with the far right, but its 'Holocaust memorial' installation infuriated Jewish groups and led to a swift rethink

A man taking a picture of the temporary memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, set up by activists of the Center for Political Beauty in Berlin, December 2, 2019.
HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/REUTERS

The so-called Resistance Column was intended to send a warning to German lawmakers about the dangers of collaborating with the far right. Instead, it became a warning about how political stunts involving the Holocaust can go very, very wrong.

The controversy began last Monday when a group of art activists from the Center for Political Beauty (abbreviated to ZPS in German) erected a large black pillar — the Resistance Column — in front of the German parliament building in Berlin. The group said the steel and glass installation featured an orange urn containing Holocaust victims’ remains, taken from soil it had unearthed at 23 locations near Nazi death and concentration camps in Germany, Poland and Ukraine.

“It’s about the last German dictatorship and whether it threatens us again,” ZPS founder and spokesman Philipp Ruch told dpa after last Monday’s unveiling, explaining how the Reichstag had voted in 1933 to grant Hitler emergency powers to run the country.

However, Jewish groups were swift to condemn the ersatz memorial. Jewish Community Munich President Charlotte Knobloch told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that although the stunt was meant to be provocative, “it is in fact only tasteless, tactless and irreverent.”

Others raised the halakhic issue of how Jewish remains are handled. The Central Council of Jews in Germany tweeted: “The recent action of the Center for Political Beauty is problematic from a Jewish point of view because it violates the Jewish religious law of the dead. If it was indeed the ashes of Shoah victims, then the peace of the dead was disturbed.” The group’s president, Josef Schuster, later told Deutsche Welle that it would have been wiser for the ZPS to consult a rabbi before taking the soil samples. And Germany’s anti-Semitism czar, Felix Klein, told German public broadcaster RBB: “By deliberately or unconsciously violating the religious laws of minorities, they contribute to the brutalization of society about which they actually want to warn.”

Center for Political Beauty activists erecting their memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust as they stage their new action titled "Search for Us!" next to the Reichstag building in Berlin, December 2, 2019.
AFP

Within 48 hours of its unveiling, the activist group was forced to issue a public apology for its installation opposite the Reichstag. “The last thing we wanted to do is hurt the religious and ethical feelings of the Holocaust survivors and descendants of the victims,” it stated. It also announced that it would be covering the urn so it contents were not visible and that the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference in Germany would be handling the physical remains in accordance with Jewish beliefs.

The group also claimed in its statement that many relatives of those murdered by the Nazis and members of the Jewish community had contacted it to say they welcomed the artwork and the message the group was trying to convey.

After the ZPS statement was released, many Germans took to social media to express their own thoughts on the installation. While many applauded the group for recognizing an error, others criticized it for backing down. For example, one user wrote: “As far as I know about people, victims prefer to be seen — although the selfish relatives might say something different now. That’s why you should stand behind your actions.”

However, speaking to Haaretz, German-Jewish journalist Mirna Funk slammed the art activists. “This proves what’s wrong about the German culture of remembering the Holocaust: It’s not about remembering but about self-assurance,” she says.

“It’s a monologue among Germans where Jewish voices are not welcome — especially not when they’re loud and critical,” adds the 38-year-old, who also wrote an article on the subject in Süddeutsche Zeitung last Wednesday. “It might be about, but it is definitely not for the victims — because as a Jew, you never forget,” Funk says.

The Center for Political Beauty thrives on controversy in its ongoing fight against Germany’s far right, frequently generating outrage and headlines for its provocative actions. In 2017, for instance, it built a replica of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (situated in Berlin) next to the home of Björn Höcke — one of the leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. He had previously labeled the memorial “a monument of shame.”

The group also set up a fake website last year that featured thousands of images of extremists who had rioted in the eastern city of Chemnitz the previous August, getting tens of neo-Nazis to out themselves on the site by typing their names into the search facility.

The temporary memorial set up by Center for Political Beauty activists is pictured in front of the Reichstags building in Berlin, Germany, December 7, 2019.
CHRISTIAN MANG/REUTERS

“The group’s basic understanding is that the legacy of the Holocaust is rendered void by political apathy, the rejection of refugees and cowardice,” it said in 2017. “It believes that Germany should not only learn from its history but also take action.”

The ZPS did not respond to Haaretz’s request for comment for this story. However, on Monday morning, the group announced in a brief statement that a new memorial column had been constructed and the physical remains in the orange urn had been removed.