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Did an Israeli student steal Auschwitz artifacts for an art exhibit?

A view of a part of a prisoners’ barrack at the former Nazi German Concentration and Death Camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Brzezinka, Poland. (Stanislaw Rozpedzik/European Pressphoto Agency)
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The horrors of Auschwitz, and the stories of those who survived the Holocaust, have defined Rotem Bides’s family narrative for generations. Her grandparents lived through it, one of them serving in the Red Army and another enduring Auschwitz itself, she said.

Bides, a 27-year-old Israeli artist, has visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland six times, she told Ynetnews, bearing witness to what remains of the largest of the German Nazi concentration and death camps, where an estimated 1.1 million people died.

But now, the memorial for the same camp her grandfather endured is pursuing a criminal investigation against her.

Earlier this week, in articles published in Israeli news outlets, Bides admitted she stole items from the Auschwitz museum for an upcoming art exhibit at her Israeli college. Pictures published in Ynetnews showed items such as a metal screw, soil, burned soup bowls, shards of glass, and a sign telling visitors it is forbidden to remove artifacts from the museum grounds.

She reportedly knew what she was doing was illegal, according to Ynetnews. She justified her actions through her art, telling the newspaper on Sunday that “it was something I had to do.”

Auschwitz memorial officials were furious, calling it “an extremely painful and outrageous story,” according to a statement from museum spokesman Bartosz Bartyzel. The museum informed Israel’s ambassador to Poland, and planned to report the theft to Polish prosecutors, Bartyzel told The Washington Post.

Bides’s school, Beit Berl College, condemned the apparent theft and announced plans to cancel her exhibit, scheduled for next Wednesday, while they pursued a disciplinary inquiry.

“The college believes that this move points to a lack of public sensitivity and a misunderstanding of its criminal significance,” the college said in an initial statement on Facebook earlier this week.

But then, the college backtracked. In a disciplinary hearing with Bides, the student told administrators that in fact, she had not removed any of the items from the museum itself. She claimed she collected the items from outside the camp grounds.

“There was nothing stolen from Auschwitz,” a spokeswoman from the college told The Post early Thursday morning. The spokeswoman declined to provide any evidence proving the origins of the objects, but said the college’s president wrote a letter to the Auschwitz museum clarifying what happened.

Bides’s project is back on schedule to be featured in the college’s art exhibit next week, an event for graduating students.

Museum officials acknowledged that based solely on the artist’s photographs they are unable to determine whether the items actually came from the memorial site. But Bartyzel said in an email that one of the photos of the art exhibit’s objects shows an information board “which is definitely taken from the area of the Museum.”

“The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Site is a protected integral whole,” Bartyzel’s email said. “It is a clear evidence of the tragedy of the Holocaust and the Second World War, which is to testify for future generations. It is difficult to even imagine that a theft could be justified in any way — also through art which can be seen only as an attempt to gain publicity.”

Whether the artist actually removed these items without permission from Auschwitz remains unclear. But Bides’s initial admission, and the way she defended it, spurred a debate in Israel, Europe and beyond: Does art justify breaking the law?

According to Bides and a number of other artists, in this case, it should.

“Millions of people were murdered based on the moral laws of a certain country, under a certain regime,” Bides told Ynetnews. “And if these are the laws, I can go there and act according to my own laws. The statement I’m making here is that laws are determined by humans, and that morality is something that changes from time to time and from culture to culture.”

Bides said she is not claiming she’s “allowed to do it” because she is a descendant of an Auschwitz survivor. But according to Ynetnews, “she had a choice whether to accept the rules of a place where all basic rules had been violated.”

“These are the things I want to deal with,” Bides said. “I’m simply asking the questions. I’m concerned that after all the survivors are gone, the Holocaust will turn into a myth, something that cannot be perceived.”

Michal Ne’eman, an award-winning painter in Israel and Bides’s academic adviser, defended her, telling Ynetnews he understood her intent and “didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.”

“I thought her effort to remove the barrier separating us from the initial aversion related to the events of World War II, for Jews specifically, is one of the things that art does sometimes,” Ne’eman said.

“Let’s say she didn’t steal, but took a piece of evidence through which she can be part of it,” she added. “It’s neither devious nor manipulative. The way I see it, she succeeds in creating a unique encounter between art and an event that has passed and has been wrapped in a lot of words, symbols and representations.”

Gilad Melzer, a curator who teaches at Beit Berl College, also spoke highly of Bides’s work, writing on Facebook that her project is a “fitting answer to the greatest art robbery of the 20th century, committed by the Nazis.”

“The tension between the background story and the result puts us — and the objects — in a state of discomfort,” Melzer wrote. “Let’s assume for a moment that what Bides is telling us is true, that she stole objects from Auschwitz — isn’t all of Auschwitz a site of theft and death? Doesn’t what remains there belong to ‘us,’ the descendants?”

But for museum officials, “‘Art’ does not justify theft,” as Bartyzel said. They see the removal of artifacts as insulting and disrespectful to the victims of “the most recognizable symbol and place of genocide in the world,” as Auschwitz is referred to on the museum website.

The large memorial site actually covers two different parts of the camp over a total area of 472 acres. Those visiting the site can get a glimpse into the horrors that took place behind the camp’s barbed wire. Areas with human ashes, ruins of gas chambers, “places where families awaited their death, places where prisoners rebelled and were executed,” according to the memorial’s website.

Among the most important aspects of the museum are the personal possessions found there, which “make up a unique collection of items connected with the suffering of the people deported to Auschwitz to be killed immediately, and with those forced into slave labor by the Germans.”

Even still, thefts have taken place a number of times at Auschwitz over the years.

In 2009, thieves stole the widely recognized bronze sign that hangs over the camp’s gate with the words Arbeit Macht Frei, or “work sets you free.” Police later found it broken into three pieces.

Two years later, an Israeli couple was convicted of stealing cutlery found in the mud at the museum site. And in March of this year, two English teenagers were fined for stealing parts of a hair clipper, buttons and fragments of glass from the camp.

For the families of Holocaust survivors, and for many others, the theft of any of these artifacts would undermine efforts to preserve evidence of the tragedy.

“Stealing artifacts from Auschwitz,” one Twitter user said, “is an assault on the memory of the dead.”

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