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Why Were Two Prominent Italian Jews Detained at Auschwitz This Week?

The incident began at the site of the notorious concentration camp and lasted about six hours, feeding concern about resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe.
Photo via Flickr user Philip Milne

In what might be the most face-palm-worthy fuck-up so far this year, two Italian Jews found themselves locked inside the grounds of the former concentration camp at Auschwitz on Tuesday. They attempted to escape through a window in the museum's visitor center, tripping an alarm. This summoned on-site security guards and eventually the police, who detained the men for several hours before moving them to a nearby police station for further questioning.


All told, the incident lasted about six hours, feeding concerns about resurgent European anti-Semitism in the process.

Riccardo Pacifici and Fabio Perugia, the president and spokesman of the Roman Jewish Community, respectively, had come to the site with Italian journalist David Parenzo. Along with two film crew members, they were covering the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Red Army for Italy's Matrix talk show.

In addition to gay, Roma, Slavic, and other prisoners of the Nazi regime, over a million Jews were gassed to death at the camp. Even more were sentenced to slave labour – including thousands of Italian Jews.

The crew had received permission to film on the camp grounds after hours from museum director Piotr Sywinski, and were scheduled to be let out by guards at 11:30 PM. But when they finished early and found the main gates locked – and no guards present – they sought another exit

"They interrogated us until six in the morning—two Jews who had been locked inside the Auschwitz camp, where I lost some of my family," Pacifici told the Italian paper La Stampa. (His grandfather, a prominent rabbi also named Riccardo, was killed there in 1943.)

"More and more police were summoned until there were some 12 officers who held us in the camp," Perugia told Haaretz.

"We were not afraid but we were stunned by this farce, in which even the Polish police don't know what to do," Pacifici added in a tweet.


The whole affair, which eventually required intervention by the Italian embassy, became such a public relations nightmare that acting Italian President Pietro Grasso called the men to share his sympathies.

Although the two Italian Jewish representatives did have a point about the tragic irony of the situation, there's little to suggest this was anything more than a monumental failure of communication. Having suffered increased vandalism in recent years, and seeing a security alert at a site in the museum with an ATM and other valuables, guards say they just followed protocol. According to a statement by Polish police spokesperson Mariusz Sokolowiski as related to the Associated Press, the police were only called in because the Italians failed to provide any identification – most likely because the language barrier prevented them from understanding the guards' request. Sokolowiski does concede that the police could have been more helpful given that staff knew an Italian crew would be trying to get out around that time.

Of course, it's hard to fault those wondering if anti-Semitism factored in here. As recently as the 1990s, memorials at Auschwitz conspicuously downplayed mention of the camp's Jewish victims and implicitly excluded participation by devout Jews who wanted to pray. And even after years of concentrated rediscovery and embrace of Jewish history and culture in Poland, surveys in 2013 still showed almost a quarter of Poles holding traditionally anti-Semitic beliefs, with over half believing Jews enjoy undue control over global financial and media institutions – an increase from 2009.

Europe has also experienced a recent spike in anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence. In the wake of anti-Jewish slogans popping up in Germany last summer and violence in France over the past several months, the United Nations just held a summit on European anti-Semitism. The European Jewish Association is also pushing for the right for Jews to carry guns for self-defence and European Jews are immigrating to Israel in big numbers.

"Jews are targeted in Europe once again because they are Jews," the BBC quoted Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, as saying at the same Auschwitz memorial Pacifici and Perugia attended on Tuesday. "Once again, young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes on the streets of Paris, Budapest, London and even Berlin."

So if the screw-up at Auschwitz was just that – a mistake – the attendant uproar does nothing to help Europe's image as a backwater of lingering anti-Semitism.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.