Naked tag video filmed in gas chamber at Stutthof concentration camp spurs Polish investigation

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 01:53:47 AM. The artist’s intention was to 'show the highest respect for the memory of the Holocaust.”

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A video of naked people laughing, frolicking and playing tag inside a gas chamber may be nearly two decades old, but it has just now spurred an investigation by Polish authorities. Polish interior minister Mariusz Błaszczak passed on a file about Artur Żmijewski’s 1999 work “Game of Tag” to prosecutors, he said on Friday, and told them to follow up on research carried out by groups that represent Holocaust survivors.

The move followed a letter that the Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other groups sent to Polish President Andrzej Duda, asking him to “clearly, properly condemn this so-called artwork.”

The video’s description did not indicate the exact location where it was filmed, but the spot was recently identified as Stutthof, a civilian internment camp east of Gdansk in Poland that became a concentration camp in January 1942 and was expanded the following year. More than 60,000 prisoners died there, in the gas chamber as well as from typhus and other causes. Jerusalem-based lawyer David Schonberg reportedly compared the video to footage of a July visit to Stutthof by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and experts at Yad Vashem confirmed that Żmijewski’s video indeed matched the gas chamber that camp.

12_04_Stutthof_gas_chamber A general view of a gas chamber as Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge visit the former Nazi German concentration camp, Stutthof during an official visit to Poland and Germany on July 18. Bruce Adams-Pool/Getty Images

In the letter, the groups wanted to know whether Żmijewski got “permission from the Stutthof administrators to make this video, what rules exist for proper conduct at the site, how these are enforced.”

Piotr Tarnowski, the director of the Stutthof Museum and Memorial, said on Friday that a former head of the site had asked Żmijewski to destroy the material filmed there after discovering its nature. The filmmaker promised he would do so, but clearly didn’t follow through.

Tarnowski called again for the footage to be destroyed, saying that “the current management of the Stutthof Museum clearly and strongly condemns this production of Artur Żmijewski and considers it a desecration of the Memorial Site,” according to a Google translation of a Polish article. He emphasized that such a video could never be made today at Stutthof, where there are strict rules about filming and where a museum employee always accompanies a crew.  

“They know where they are—in the gas chamber of a former Nazi extermination camp,” having fun but also taking it seriously, Żmijewski reportedly said of the work in a description on the Warsaw Art Museum’s website. As of Friday, the work was still hosted on there, according to Vice, but the link now returns an error message.

The MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow displayed the work in 2015 as part of the exhibition “Poland-Israel-Germany: The Experience of Auschwitz.” It outraged observers then, too, and the Israeli embassy, which had sponsored the show, called for part of the video to be removed in the wake of the criticism.  

But the museum resisted, citing freedom of expression and defending the artist and his work. “To read this film as an insult to the victims of the concentration camps we feel is to misinterpret it," Maria Potocka, then director of the museum, told Radio Poland at the time. The artist’s intention was to "show the highest respect for the memory of the Holocaust.”

Related: The Story of Yolocaust, the Holocaust Memorial Selfie Project That Shocked and Vanished

The question of respectful behavior at Holocaust sites and memorials has frequently caused vigorous debate in recent years. Flash points have included the proliferation of people taking smiling selfies at Auschwitz or playing games like Pokemon Go at the camp and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The selfie trend inspired the now-defunct Facebook page “With My Besties in Auschwitz” (translated from Hebrew) and the more broadly focused Tumblr “ Selfies at Serious Places.”  

While Żmijewski is being criticized for making light of a Holocaust site himself, other artists have created works that condemn flippant behavior at similar locations. In early 2017, Shahak Shapira launched a scathing online project that decried the practice of snapping selfies and other silly photos at at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Israeli Jewish artist, who has lived in Germany since he was 14, published a dozen photos he’d found on social networking and dating websites that strangers had taken at the expansive memorial—selfies, yoga poses, people jumping or juggling. When viewers hovered a mouse over them, they turned to black and white, with the modern images cropped and transposed over photos of Holocaust victims. He called the project Yolocaust, and gave those whose photos had been used the option of emailing him to have them removed. Within a week, all the images had disappeared.

“I never thought it would happen so fast and that I could actually reach all of those people,” Shapira told Newsweek at the time. “I wanted to make a project that would be done. I don’t want it to last forever. I don’t want to remind people how to behave. I want them to get it.”

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