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Tartu exhibition mocking Holocaust criticized home and abroad

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A Holocaust memorial in Pärnu
A Holocaust memorial in Pärnu Source: Photo: Pärnu Postimees / Scanpix

The Estonian Jewish community and the Jerusalem-based Simon Wiesenthal Center called for the removal of an exhibition in Tartu which it believes mocks the victims of the Holocaust and insults their memory.

The exhibition opened on Monday at the Art Museum in Tartu, Estonia.

The museum said that the exhibition, titled "My Poland. On Recalling and Forgetting", brings together works that according to the museum, could be seen as a number of artistic proposals to talk about a painful episode from the past and to deal with this particular traumatic experience in contemporary reality. The trouble arose because the participating artists depict the tragic events through the prism of humor, rather than what they were – a horrible genocide against innocent people.

For example, a video by a Polish artist Artur Żmijewski depicts an Aushcwitz gas chamber where a group of naked people cheerfully dance around. There is another video where an artist is asking a 92-year old Holocaust survivor to renew concentration camp tattoo on his arm.

"While the exhibition claims to attempt to deal with trauma through humor, the result is a sickening mockery of the mass murder of European Jewry and the important ongoing efforts to commemorate the victims' memory and impart the lessons of the Holocaust. Thus, for example, one of the pieces in the exhibition is a film in which naked actors play tag in what is supposed to represent a gas chamber, a shameful parody of the fate of millions of Jews who were murdered in death camps. Such perverted humor has no place in any country, least of all one in which Holocaust crimes were perpetrated not only by Germans and Austrians, but by local Estonian Nazi collaborators as well," the Simon Wiesenthal Center said.

Parliament speakers and former foreign minister agree with the Jewish community

The sentiment was today echoed by the Estonian Jewish community. Their representatives sent an official letter to Estonian education minister, minister of culture, parliament speaker and president, protesting against the exhibition.

The deputy speaker of Estonian parliament, Laine Randjärv, said to news portal Delfi that she is in absolute solidarity with the Jewish community.

“I have worked with the Estonian Jewish community on numerous occasions and I can say that I understand their sentiment very well,” Randjärv said.

Randjärv said, however, that she doesn't believe that the curators of the exhibition at the Tartu Art Museum deliberately wanted to create a situation where citizens from an Estonian Jewish minority feel offended. Randjärv added that the state can not regulate everything by law, but there should be an ethical limit that is based on one's conscience.

The second deputy speaker of parliament, Jüri Ratas, agreed with Randjärv and clearly denounced the organizers of the exhibition.

“The organizers have failed to uphold the common principles of respect in regards to other nations and people,” Ratas said.

According to Ratas, Estonia should not tolerate the mockery of Holocaust and other crimes that were committed by the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler.

“It equals with laughing about the deportation of Estonians to Siberia. These were horrible historical events that affect millions of people around the world even nowadays,” Ratas said, adding that with a freedom of speech and creativity comes the responsibility to take into account the feelings and values of others.

Ratas said that hopefully, the organizers of the exhibition will understand that they have breached the limits and will remove the controversial videos from the exhibition.

“The organizers should also apologize to Estonian Jewish community. And if the organizers don't understand their inappropriate behavior, culture minister should take a stance,” Ratas said.

Eiki Nestor, parliament's speaker, said to Delfi that he would not suggest to take down the Tartu exhibition immediately, but he will meet with the representatives of Estonian Jewish community to decide an appropriate course of action and should the community still feel offended, the exhibition organizers should take it into account.

Urmas Paet, a former foreign minister and now a member of the European Parliament, also agreed with the growing political consensus that the mocking art exhibition is inappropriate.

“Tartu Art Museum should take into account the concerns voiced by the local Jewish community, as well as many Estonians, and make changes to this exhibition, as it hurts too many people. It is clear that if the descendants of the victims of these 20th century crimes against humanity feel offended, then the museum should quickly take this into account and put a brake on an offensive exhibition. I believe that the victims and their surviving loved ones deserve an empathy from the modern Estonian society,” Paet said.

Editor: S. Tambur

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