Amazon faces criticism over Holocaust exploitation as survivors struggle

Al Pacino

FILE – In this Jan. 14, 2020, file photo, Al Pacino speaks at the “Hunters” panel during the Amazon TCA 2020 Winter Press Tour at the Langham Huntington, in Pasadena, Calif. Pacino, Robert De Niro and Melissa McCarthy are among the presenters for the Producers Guild of America Awards on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. The guild announced Friday that other presenters include Jane Fonda, Taika Waititi, Laura Dern, Constance Wu and Kaitlyn Dever. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Amazon is facing continued criticism for misrepresenting the Holocaust following the release of a new original series. 

“Hunters,” starring Al Pacino in the actor’s first role as a TV regular has upset viewers, the Jewish community, and scholars for taking creative liberty too far while trying to depict the real-life horrors.

More than 7 million people were killed during the Holocaust, more than 5 times the population of the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area. Despite the death toll of the Holocaust, in 2018 more than two-thirds of American millennials reported never hearing of the Holocaust.

“Hunters” centers on Pacino’s character as a postwar detective living in New York City on the hunt for Nazi war criminals. One episode includes a scene where prisoners of Auschwitz are used as human chess pieces and killed once taken off the board. 

Neither of these events occurred. 

Holocaust educators in Poland and El Paso are working to combat the spread of misappropriations.

The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum expressed disappointment with Amazon over Twitter.

“Auschwitz was full of horrible pain & suffering documented in the accounts of survivors. Inventing a fake game of human chess for @huntersonprime is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers. We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy.”

The plot, pacing, and star power have intrigued audiences while infuriating those with knowledge of the Holocaust who argue factual testimonies should be used in place of fictionalized accounts that distort history and perpetuate Holocaust denial.

According to scholar, Berel Lang, author of Holocaust Representation: Art Within the Limits of History and Ethics, art inspired by the Holocaust “aspires to the condition of history,” to ensure accounts based on the historical record are passed down to younger generations with factual integrity. 

“Hunters” series creator David Weil said in a statement the show is not a documentary, but rather a fictionalized narrative.

According to Weil, the show was mindful not to “misrepresent a real person or borrow from a specific moment in an actual person’s life.” 

The fictionalization is precisely what critics of the show are arguing because thousands of survivor testimonies exist to draw from, like the brothels set up for prisoners to rape female prisoners after a day of labor or the infants who were flung against walls in front of their mothers and left for dead.

The real atrocities committed during the Holocaust are beyond most people’s imaginations. 

Distortions and misappropriations of the Holocaust have been popularized in entertainment worldwide. International Best-Selling books and films like The Tattooist of Auschwitz, “Inglorious Basterds,” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” have spread provocative but inaccurate representations of the Holocaust. Scholars encourage pursuing ethical and lauded Holocaust representations such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel MAUS by Art Spiegelman, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, or the Academy Award-winning film “The Pianist.”

Reactions to “Hunters” comes at the heels of another Holocaust-related scandal for Amazon. Over the holidays, many were outraged by Amazon’s selling of Nazi-propaganda items that included Christmas ornaments with images of Auschwitz, the death camp where at least one million Jews, Roma, Catholics, and others were murdered by gas chamber, gun wound, starvation, freezing, infection, and other methods that did not include a human chess game. 

The sale of Nazi propaganda sparked discussion over the ethics of merchandise sold on a digital marketplace as large as Amazon and the message it sends to consumers and other businesses. 

The commodification of the Holocaust in entertainment and e-commerce coincides with a rising number of Holocaust survivors who are living in poverty. According to a survey from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, one in four Holocaust survivors in the U.S. live at or below the poverty level

In El Paso, organizations and individuals work to prevent distortions and misappropriations and encourage Holocaust education.

“It’s incredibly dangerous to pull at different parts of history and distort or dramatize it in a way that we want it to have been,” Jamie Flores, Executive Director of the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center, tells KTSM.

“It’s not only a distortion of history but it distracts from the actual facts and really demeans a victim’s experience and their actual story. Very fictionalized accounts romanticize history, and we’re seeing it occur more and more. The dangerous part is that people don’t always separate fact from fiction, and misunderstand what the Holocaust was.”

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