A German political performance-art group has ended its display allegedly containing the ashes of Holocaust victims following a widespread outcry from Jewish institutions and German society.
The Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS), Center for Political Beauty, claimed it placed the ashes of victims of the Holocaust in an urn between the Reichstag, the seat of Germany’s federal parliament, and the Bundeskanzleramt, which contains Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office.
The political installation and memorial was erected as a protest against Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. The ZPS had declared its protest was aimed at reminding German society of the dangers of placing the fate of democracy in the hands of right-wing movements.
Drawing parallels between the National Socialist gradual rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s and the successes of the AfD, the urn was meant as a warning of the dangers of far-right parties in government, ZPS stated.
In a video explaining the display, ZPS documented how, by analyzing sources from the Nazi period and survivors’ testimonies, it had established that ashes and body fragments had been scattered across fields, thrown into rivers and used in the construction of dams.
Establishing sites likely to contain human remains, ZPS tool samples of the soil, which were sent to laboratories for analysis. According to the self-proclaimed “humanitarian assault team,” the majority of samples analyzed indeed contained human remains.
The group claimed to have taken samples from near sites of Nazi concentration camps, including Sobibor and Treblinka. It initially claimed also to have taken ashes found close to Auschwitz, something the group later backtracked on.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany issued a statement criticizing the ZPS installation, calling it “problematic from a Jewish perspective as the actions of the Center for Political Beauty violated the Jewish religious law prohibiting the disturbance of resting places.”
The International Auschwitz Committee, founded by Holocaust Survivors in 1952, also voiced its opposition to ZPS, with its vice president Christoph Heubner saying that “Auschwitz survivors are dismayed that this memorial violates their feelings and the eternal peace of their murdered relatives.”
The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem stated it did not “generally critique artistic expressions that evoke Holocaust imagery,” and believes that “respectful artistic representation of the subject can be legitimate as long as [they] in no way offend, belittle or desecrate the memory of the Holocaust.”
Support from Germans
Many Jewish individuals in Germany came out in support of the installation on social media, with a prominent theme echoing the ZPS’ contention that the previous resting place of victims was unworthy and inhumane.
The installation in Berlin was initially meant to be on display until 7 December and made permanent if the ZPS reached a required €50,000 through fundraising. However, following the criticism by Jewish organizations and the International Auschwitz Committee, the ZPS covered the urn on Wednesday and declared the end of the campaign.
It simultaneously issued a statement apologizing “to Jewish institutions, associations, and individuals who deem our work disturbed the dead’s places of rest in regards to Jewish religious law,” while also asking survivors and relatives for forgiveness.
In its statement, ZPS called for the German state to supply sufficient funds to adequately declare, mark and protect the identified mass graves and provide funding for memorial sites to continue their valuable work in remembering the past and teaching lessons for the future.
ZPS added, “The legacy of the Holocaust is rendered void by political apathy, the rejection of refugees and cowardice. It believes that Germany should not only learn from its History but also take action.”
The group is famous in Germany for controversial and provocative performance art shedding a light on issues such as the rise of right-wing parties, the European response to refugees, and Germany’s handling of Holocaust remembrance.
In 2017, it made headlines in Germany after constructing a copy of the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in a garden next to the rural home of AfD politician Björn Höcke. Höcke had previously said that “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital.”