09 September 2022

Museum in Auschwitz plays
role in combatting rise
in modern antisemitism

The train tracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Oshpitzin Jewish Museum in Oświęcim, the town in southern Poland were the Nazis built the Auschwitz death camp, has launched a digital catalogue of its collection that makes information about the thousands of items in the museum available online.

The museum — which uses the Yiddish name for the town — is part of the Auschwitz Jewish Centre Foundation (AJCF), an education and religious complex affiliated to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. The museum is anchored by the town’s one surviving synagogue and includes the house where Szymon Kluger, the town’s last Jewish resident, lived.

The Oshpitzin Jewish Museum includes exhibits from the town’s Great Synagogue. The synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, but these items were found during archaeological excavations in 2004.

The digital catalogue project took 18 months to complete and involved surveying and cataloguing 1,378 artefacts, 8,058 photographs, 18,165 documents, 744 multimedia pieces and 4,096 books, the museum told Jewish Heritage Europe (JHE).

The collection includes pieces related to the town’s Jewish built heritage, including an 18th century matzevah or gravestone and tiles, candlesticks and other relics from the Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis.

‘It’s a pivotal moment in the development of our museum,’ Artur Szyndler, Chief Curator of the Oshpitzin Museum, told JHE.

‘After 20 years of collecting artefacts and preserving the local Jewish memory — so much overshadowed by the tragedy of Auschwitz — we are able to share our unique collection with the entire world,’ he said. ‘The launch of our catalogue is only the first step in ensuring open access to our collection. We already started scanning our artefacts and hope to digitise the entire collection within the next 2-3 years.’

So far, the vast majority of entries in the digital catalogue provide a catalogue number and basic information, but more than 100 selected items also include pictures.

Before the Holocaust, Oświęcim had a majority Jewish population, and Jews were involved in all spheres and levels of society. A major business was the award-winning Haberfeld distillery.

As Artur Szyndler points out, in contrast to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, this is a memorial museum that both commemorates Holocaust victims and details the murderous story of Jewish brutalisation and death at the hands of the Nazis.

The Oshpitzin Museum promotes knowledge and understanding of the rich and diverse Jewish life that flourished in Oświęcim for centuries, up until the eve of World War II.

The Auschwitz Jewish Centre Foundation was established in 2000. In addition to the Oshpitzin Museum, it runs a variety of educational programmes. In 2019, it inaugurated a memorial park on the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue.

The need for museums and centres such as the Oshpitzin Museum and the Auschwitz Jewish Centre Foundation is increasing, as recent reports show sharp rises in antisemitic incidents and in reports of Holocaust denial throughout Europe and the US.

The European Commission has reported a seven-fold increase in antisemitic postings across French language social media accounts, and an over 13-fold increase in antisemitic comments within German channels during the pandemic.

The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based Jewish civil rights group, reports 2,717 incidents in 2021, representing an increase of 34% over 2020.

A new book, Antisemitism on Social Media, offers perspectives from Denmark, Germany, India, Israel, Sweden, the UK and the US on how algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube contribute to spreading antisemitism.

Hatred against Jews on social media is often expressed in stereotypical depictions of Jews that stem from Nazi propaganda or in denial of the Holocaust. Antisemitic social media posts also express hatred toward Jews that is based on the notion that all Jews are Zionist and in which Zionism is constructed as innately evil.

Contemporary antisemitism easily remains undetected and is found in various forms such as GIFs, memes, vlogs, comments and reactions such as likes and dislikes on the platforms. For example, on Facebook, Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), omits mentioning the Holocaust in posts about World War II and also uses antisemitic language and rhetoric that present antisemitism as acceptable.

Other forms of antisemitism on social media include antisemitic troll attacks. Users organise to disrupt online events by flooding them with messages that deny the Holocaust or spread conspiracy myths, as QAnon does.

The recent reports found that children and young adults are especially in danger of being exposed, often unwittingly, to antisemitism on TikTok, which already counts over one billion users worldwide. Some of the content combines clips of footage from Nazi Germany with new text belittling or making fun of the victims of the Holocaust.

Antisemitism is fuelled by algorithms that are programmed to register engagement. This ensures that the more engagement a post receives, the more users see it. Because outrageous content creates the most engagement, users feel more encouraged to post hateful content.

The World Jewish Congress points out that lies about the Holocaust are able to spread across the internet when platforms do not step in to stop it.

To combat antisemitism on social media, strategies need to be evidence-based. But neither social media companies nor researchers have devoted enough time and resources to this issue so far.

The global, borderless spread of antisemitic posts on social media is happening on an unprecedented scale. It needs the collective efforts of social media companies, researchers and civil society to combat this problem.

Shabbat Shalom

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