An Australian company this week removed a mini skirt, tote bag, and throw pillow decorated with Holocaust images from its e-commerce site after the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted the merchandise was “disturbing and disrespectful.”
The items were sold on Redbubble, an online global marketplace used by 845,000 independent artists to sell their wares. The questionable fashion—created by artists who weren’t identified—carried representations of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland where 1.1 million people perished between 1940-1945 under the Nazi regime during World War II.
“[We] take a strong stance against racism and violence, including the atrocities committed in Nazi concentration camps, and scan specifically for this type of content daily.” Redbubble told Fortune in a statement. “We have taken immediate action to remove the works identified by the Auschwitz Memorial, and apologize.”
While Jewish organizations praised the platform for its action and apology, they expressed concern the incident reflects a wider lack of awareness about the Holocaust.
Retail’s Trend of Turning ‘Human Tragedy Into Fashion’
“This insensitive and disrespectful display is just the latest in what has become a pervasive trend among certain vendors to flippantly offer up offensive items without pausing to consider the dangerous ramifications of turning symbols of human evil and human tragedy into fashion,” World Jewish Conference CEO and executive vice president Robert Singer told Fortune.
The Redbubble incident is reminiscent of three separate offenses in recent years by global fashion retailers.
“In 2014, Zara sold striped t-shirts bearing the Star of David, an obvious replicate of the striped pajamas worn by concentration camp inmates and the Jewish stars forced on Jews in the ghetto,” said Singer, expressing disbelief the company would do this since, “Just two years before, in 2012, Urban Outfitters sold a similar shirt, to the disgust of the Jewish community.”
Singer continued: “In 2017, the Prada-owned Miu Miu company sold a similar item, containing a yellow patch, removing it from its website only after representatives of the WJC personally called to express its discomfort and disgust.”
Unlike Zara or Miu Miu, which creates and sells its own clothing, Redbubble serves as a platform for independent artists. While the former should presumably be able to eradicate harmful products before they make it to production, many third-party platforms don’t monitor merchandise until after its available for sale—a structural problem that can lead to questionable products being displayed.
Quality Control On Third Party Platforms
“Most e-tailers are not resourced to provide ongoing, active monitoring of all content available on the site,” Greg Portell, a lead global partner at A.T. Kearney’s consumer and retail practice, told Fortune. “Most aren’t curated like a traditional retail environment. Rather, they operate as communities with a spirit of open access. So this issue will continue to challenge social and commerce sites.”
Redbubble underscored this challenge.
“We do not pre-screen every image that is uploaded to the site, as there are tens of thousands of images uploaded daily,” a spokesperson said, noting the company has a team, as well as third-party technology, which scours the site to identify and remove content and creators that violate its guidelines.
“While our team works tirelessly on this review,” the spokesperson said, “considering the sheer volume of designs that are submitted, we greatly appreciate our community, or others, bringing any problematic works to our attention if something is found that has not yet been removed.”
In fact, shortly after Redbubble tweeted Tuesday it had removed the products emblazoned with death camp photographs, the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted it found another shirt on the site, featuring a drawing of a character named “Dr. Holocaust.”
This item was removed as well, and the Auschwitz Memorial thanked the e-tailer for its message and actions.
“We are continuously working to ensure that we are able to keep offending content of this nature off of Redbubble and will be further adjusting our policies moving forward,” said the company’s spokesperson.
But this problem goes beyond a single platform.
“On Amazon, it is not uncommon for customers to stumble upon obviously hateful material, including Holocaust denial books and Nazi paraphernalia, as well as Lego characters dressed as Nazi soldiers, and while the WJC and other Jewish activists rush to respond the moment we see such items, we cannot and should not be responsible for policing the internet,” Singer said.
The Rise Of ‘Willful Ignorance’
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of Global Social Action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles, questions how such depictions can occur.
“The first responsibility is for artists and businesses to recognize that they should not be monetizing genocide,” Rabbi Cooper, told Fortune. “We live in a social age of the internet, you can’t hide behind ignorance. If there is ignorance at play it’s willful.”
Rabbi Cooper isn’t only concerned someone thought it was appropriate to sell a $45 mini skirt decorated with a picture of the main Nazi guardhouse at Auschwitz. Although the age of the artists aren’t known, Rabbi Cooper said, “This is a disquieting confirmation of polls showing that millennials know next to nothing about the Holocaust let alone the lessons they should be learning from it.”
A 2018 study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and Schoen Consulting found two-thirds of millennials are unaware of Auschwitz.
Citing the rise of “Nazi chic” aesthetics around the world—from Nazi themed bars and cafes, to people dressing up in SS uniforms for parades—Rabbi Cooper said, “This may seem like a fleeting incident, but it isn’t.”