Row explodes over Amazon Nazi-hunter show

Grisly: Humans are used as pieces and murdered by other prisoners when they are “taken”. © Amazon Studios

Is it wrong to tell fictional stories about the Holocaust? A new TV show about vigilante justice has been accused of sensationalising the genocide of millions for entertainment purposes.

Prisoners stand on scattered squares across a giant chess board. One by one, they are ordered to move around the grid as human pawns. When the time comes to take a “piece” from the board, their sadistic captors order them to kill one another.

This cruel game of human chess is a shocking and evocative depiction of evil perpetrated in Auschwitz. But there’s just one catch: it never happened.

The sequence, which appears in Amazon’s new series Hunters, has been criticised this week by several Jewish groups. The 10-part drama starring Al Pacino follows a vigilante group in the 1970s that tracks down hundreds of escaped Nazis living in the US, and brings them to justice.

While the show is advertised as a fictional drama, it has been accused of “Jewsploitation” for its depiction of Auschwitz, where an estimated one million people were murdered.

Karen Pollack, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, called the fictional scene “flippant entertainment”. The Auschwitz Memorial has condemned it as “foolishness” and “caricature”.

Hunters comes in an important year. In January, over 200 survivors – many in their 90s – gathered at Auschwitz to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The former extermination camp in Poland was part of the Nazi campaign to eradicate Jews from Europe. Despite this, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are growing. With so few surviving witnesses to the Holocaust, the Auschwitz Memorial claims that authors and artists have an obligation to stick to documented accounts of survivors, warning that the invention in Hunters “welcomes future deniers”.

Producer David Weil responded that he did not wish to misrepresent “specific, real acts of trauma”, adding, “Symbolic representations provide individuals access to an emotional and symbolic reality that allows us to better understand the experiences of the Shoah.”

Weil’s show has ex-Nazi officials in powerful positions conspiring to create a Fourth Reich in America. While this did not take place, Hunters does draw on historical fact. Nasa knowingly employed Nazis after the war, and officials in death camps did play cruel games with their prisoners. While many argue the chess scene is in bad taste, it certainly reminds its viewers of the scale of evil taking place at Auschwitz.

So, is it wrong to tell fictional stories about the Holocaust?

Telling tales

Some would say the Holocaust is off-limits when it comes to fiction. The true stories are enough to tell us what happened, anything else becomes unnecessary, morbid entertainment. At best, such fictions run the risk of becoming the accepted version of history. At worst, they can encourage Holocaust deniers to suggest that true accounts are also simply fictional.

Of course it isn’t wrong, others argue. We should value art for how it affects us, whether or not it is based on fact. Fiction has long been a medium for understanding the world. It prompts us to think about the most important issues and empathise with characters on a deeper level. Fictional stories about the Holocaust bring to life the horrors of what happened, which can be difficult to imagine.

You Decide

  1. What can we learn from fictional stories?
  2. Is vigilante justice ever the answer?

Activities

  1. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is a fictional fable about two friends, one of them is a prisoner in Auschwitz. Imagine you have a friend in the camp and write a letter to them.
  2. “Fiction is truer than fact.” Split into two groups and write down arguments for and against this statement respectively. When you have finished, swap your lists. Are you convinced?

Some People Say...

“Art is supposed to change us, to challenge us – and, yes, even to trick us.”

John D’Agata, American essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Nazi campaign to eradicate European Jewry resulted in the death of more than six million people during World War Two. The Nazis also targeted black people, gay men, Roma, and political opponents. There is a huge amount of literature on the Holocaust, some of it, like The Diary of Anne Frank, by survivors, some by historians, and some by fiction writers like John Boyne (The Boy in Striped Pyjamas). Each offers a different angle for understanding the events between 1941 and 1945.
What do we not know?
There may be many different ways of portraying the Holocaust, but people have different opinions on who should be telling them and how. Some believe that historical facts and figures are the only way to show the full scale of the genocide, while others think personal accounts are more powerful, even if they deal with specific events. Meanwhile, novelists writing Holocaust fiction who have access to both forms would argue that an absence of fact does not mean there is no ‘emotional truth’.

Word Watch

Perpetrated
Carried out, committed.
Vigilante
The idea of ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands, without any kind of legal authority,
Jewsploitation
A negative term describing a genre of films focusing on Jews and Jewish experiences.
Caricature
A picture, description, or imitation of people or topic, in which certain characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic effect.
Holocaust denial
The belief that there was no programme organised by the Nazis to eliminate the Jews. Holocaust denial also includes those who disbelieve the scale of the genocide.
Survivors
The youngest survivor is Angela Orosz, 75, who was born in the camp in December 1944.
Shoah
Translating as “catastrophe” in Hebrew, Shoah has been used to describe the 20th-Century Holocaust since the 1940s. It is the official term in Israel.
Nasa
At the start of the Cold War, the US government embarked on a secret project called “Operation Paperclip”, which allowed hundreds of Nazi scientists into the country to share their knowledge.

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