The Problem with Holocaust-Inspired Costumes

The distinctive blue-and-white stripes of many concentration camp uniforms make them instantly recognizable. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum collection

The young women applied makeup to make their skin appear bruised and emaciated, their cheekbones hollowed and their eyes swollen. The little girl wore a brown satchel over a blue dress coat with an identification tag hanging off the collar. The new parents put a tiny and familiar fake mustache above their baby’s upper lip.

It seems like each year, no matter how offensive and in poor taste, people dress up (or dress up their children) as the perpetrators or the victims of the Holocaust. For every kid attending a Halloween party as Adolf Hitler or a big chain store selling an Anne Frank costume, there are widespread denunciations or news articles explaining why such outfits are tone deaf and disrespectful to the memory of victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Still, they keep happening. And the explanations usually fall into one of two categories: “I meant no harm” or “I didn’t know what it meant.” Let’s start with the latter.

The burden too often falls on Jews to explain why a photo, video, or costume is harmful or offensive. In effect, Jews are being asked to explain and to defend their humanity and the gross inhumanity of the Holocaust. But the burden should be shifted. Ignorance has always been a go-to defense, but it’s too readily excused. Maybe it’s time to explore why people don’t know more about the Holocaust and how that can change.

Seventy-five years after the murder of six million Jews, the gap in Holocaust education seems to be growing. A nationwide survey released in September found an alarming lack of basic knowledge among adults under 40, including over 1 in 10 respondents who did not recall ever having heard the word “Holocaust.” Each year, fewer survivors remain to provide first-hand testimony to the atrocities, and so it is more critical than ever to make sure accurate educational resources are widely available.

But Holocaust education already has strong roots in many American schools, which is why the teaching can’t just fall on educators. How a society treats significant historical events of this magnitude is often reflected in what happens outside the classroom. What messages are being conveyed that suggest masquerading as a victim or perpetrator is appropriate? Why would you pretend to have been alive during the Holocaust when you could read first-hand accounts from people who were?

And that’s why the “meant no harm” argument is so disconcerting. Not intending to cause offense does not justify playing dress-up as a mass murderer whose dangerous philosophy continues to provide inspiration for antisemitic attacks and beliefs. The emphasis should be on impact over intention. It’s not enough to ask: “Am I trying to cause harm?” The question needs to be: “Am I causing harm?”

Regardless of intention, dressing up as a Holocaust perpetrator or victim dehumanizes, mocks, and dismisses the feelings and experiences of survivors and their loved ones at a time when very real and dangerous antisemitic incidents continue to rise.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org