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An Instagram of a rubber duck at Auschwitz starts a conversation about photo ethics — again

Participants attend the annual “March of the Living” to commemorate the Holocaust at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum publishes historical facts on its Twitter account about the horrors that occurred at the Holocaust’s most infamous death camp, and frequently engages with social media users around the world for educational purposes. Last week, it had to deliver one of its occasional lessons in decorum, after a travel Instagram account posted a photo of a rubber duck outside the entrance to the Birkenau death camp where an estimated one million people died at the hands of the Nazis.

It was just the latest case where Auschwitz and other Holocaust memorial sites have needed to convey proper etiquette to visitors, who increasingly convey their presence at such sights with photographs and, controversially, selfies.

On Wednesday, the Memorial tweeted out a photo taken by @atuk.apil, a travel Instagram account run by a 22-year-old Venezuelan university student who travels the world with a smiling rubber duck. His account features photos of the toy in front of international landmarks like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or Petra in Jordan.

The student, who asked not be named for fear of further backlash, told The Washington Post that he had traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau in September to learn about its history. He insisted he used the duck to teach people about important locations in “creative and informative way” and “never intended to offend or generate controversy."

But his photo set off another round of a debate about how visitors should engage with somber historic sites in the digital age.

“Is the rubber duck in front of the Gate of Death disrespectful - even unintentionally?” the Memorial tweeted Wednesday. “Or is it a side effect of the visual world we should accept/ignore?”

The Memorial also tweeted out a translation of a caption that accompanied the photo, which attempted to explain the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Does it make it better, or worse?” the Memorial asked, that the user knew the significance of the site.

The tweets sparked thousands of replies as users debated the ethics of posting such a photo on Instagram. Most users agreed that the photo had been disrespectful, though a few argued that the post was intended to be educational.

Some of these sentiments made their way back to @atuk.apil, who told The Post he had tried to use his account to teach people about Auschwitz’s history. But upon hearing feedback on social media from people who both supported his image and did not, he apologized to the Auschwitz Memorial and removed the image.

The Memorial later tweeted an image of his apology. “The intention of the post was the one previously mentioned without intentions to disrespect or generate controversy on the matter,” @atuk.apil wrote. “My sincerest apologies to @auschwitzmemorial for the inconvenience and to all the people who have felt offended.”

For the Memorial, the exchange was less about shaming an Instagram user and more about asking the public to reflect on what photos are appropriate at such a site. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum does not explicitly ban photography except in certain places within the complex, but they ask people to use their best judgment when taking images.

“The image was used as an example to ask a question about boundaries of visual commemoration that in the era of social media is a new challenge — also for our institution,” said Memorial spokesman Pawel Sawicki.

Sharing the image of the rubber duck, and asking followers to weigh in, was part of a greater strategy that the Memorial employs on social media to reinforce positive behavior and images, Sawicki said. The Memorial’s Instagram reposts visitor images that demonstrate respectful approaches to photographing Auschwitz. They also do not shy away from posting examples of images they feel are inappropriate.

In March, the Memorial chastised visitors who were taking pictures while walking on the train tracks leading into the Gates of Death, which brought hundreds of thousands of terrified prisoners into Birkenau for extermination.

“When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed,” they tweeted. “Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths.”

But “for most of our visitors,” Sawicki acknowledged, “photography can help them document the visit, save the emotions and remember about things they saw and heard.”

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