With some Greeks who experienced World War II and the Nazi occupation still around to remember the horror, a Holocaust-themed escape room game in Thessaloniki – where the Jewish community was wiped out – has drawn the ire of critics and Jews.
It had been called Schindler’s List, the name of the Steven Spielberg film about the Holocaust before roaring criticism led to the name change Secret Agent but turning the tragedy into a game still has many upset people are profiteering.
In a feature, the German news site Deutsche Welle noted that the game is especially popular with Greek youth who enter and play a game in which the goal is to draw up a list of survivors who will be spared a grisly death by enemy forces.
The game tells participants: “Your mission is to find Schindler’s list and deliver it to the right hands. Will you manage to escape from the German army and save the lives of hundreds of innocent people?”
The game, operating for two years and advertised prominently on the company’s website, makes no explicit reference to Jews or the Holocaust, but descriptions featured on Greek websites lured players, challenging them to assist a German businessman, Oskar Schindler, in “saving as many innocent people from the pursuit of SS forces,” in Krakow, Poland.
Officials contacted at the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) have denounced the game, saying they were considering taking action.
“It’s not about anti-Semitism,” Vice President Victor Eliezer told DW. “The so-called success of these games hinges on ignorance sweeping [through] Greek society. Ask around, and chances are that most Greeks will tell you Schindler was some sort of rock star or soccer player,” he said.
“All I wish is for them to take a trip to Auschwitz to sense, even for a fraction of a second, the terror of death in a German concentration camp. Only then can there be hope that they no longer move to debase human suffering,” Eliezer said.
Still, there’s been virtually no notice in Greece about the game although activists in the United States are livid that the near-extinction of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community – with anti-semitism abounding in the city – has been turned into a game.
“To take an experience like the Holocaust that was dehumanizing for the victims and to turn that into a game trivializes not just the event, but it trivializes their suffering,” said Victoria Barnett, director of the Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Ethical behavior is grounded in respect and empathy for other people.”
Escape rooms have become hugely popular throughout Greece as they are in other countries, games in which small groups of players try to find clues and solve puzzles while trying to find their way out of a themed space within an hour without having to worry that, unlike real victims, they could be caught or killed or tortured.
In a withering criticism for the site Medium, US writer Margarita Gokun Silver, who visited the escape room, said attendants told people how to play at escaping and surving but that, “I felt uneasy because the music that accompanied his instructions was the theme song to the movie Schindler’s List. And because the escape game was called Schindler’s List,” before being changed.
“When I first saw the room on the company’s website, I did a double take. Advertised as “one of the most exciting escape rooms” in Thessaloniki, the game’s description mirrored the synopsis of Steven Spielberg’s celebrated film,” she wrote.
“How does a pastime that reduces the Holocaust to a game exist?—?and thrive?—?for almost two years and without any repercussions?” Silver added.
The company producing the game had a near-perfect 5-star rating on TripAdvisor and had garnered more than 2,000 views on YouTube video promotions, she said, adding that, “The company’s site includes at least one review that referred to the Schindler’s List room as ‘enchanting,’” showing a level of ignorance of what really happened in Thessaloniki.
The escape room is in the heart of where Thessaloniki’s Jewish community thrived for centuries? and close to the the Jewish Museum and the offices of the Jewish Community Center in Greece’s second-largest city.
“As we played, however, I realized that the creators of the escape room had completely erased Jews from Oscar Schindler’s story … the game never mentioned deportations, or the Final Solution, or the fate of Thessaloniki’s Jewry,” she wrote.
Before World War II, Thessaloniki’s Jewish community was among the largest in the world and a celebrated center of its culture, making it a prime target for the Nazis who rounded up Jews, made them exercise for hours in a prominent city square and shipped most off to concentration camps to their deaths.
At the height of World War II more than 44,000 Jews in the city were taken away and only a handful of survivors returned to a city that had lost 96 percent of its Jewish community, the DW report noted.
“We cannot forget. We shall not forget. We shouldn’t forget,” said David Saltiel, the President of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.
THESSALONIKI WON’T BOW
Earlier in February, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris said a spate of anti-semitic vandalism aimed at Jewish cemeteries won’t break the spirit of Thessaloniki. He said no matter how many times the cemeteries are vandalized they would be repaired.
“Even if they vandalize the monuments 100 times we will repair them 110 times,” said Boutaris, whose proposal for a 24-hour police guard at the monuments was rejected in a meeting with local authorities, police and the Jewish community leadership, said Kathimerini.
Saltiel though said that, “The monuments should not be guarded as that would be a disgrace for the city. The monuments were made to remind us of history. They cannot have a policeman next to them. All that can be done is to have lighting and better management.”
Late in January, a Thessaloniki prosecutor in Thessaloniki ordered an urgent investigation into the destruction by unknown vandals of a local Jewish memorial.
Prosecutor Evangelos Zarkantzias instructed police to treat the attack on a monument marking a former Jewish cemetery as a breach of Greece’s laws against racism, which carry harsher penalties than ordinary vandalism.
In July, 2018, the World Jewish Congress said Greece needs to get tougher on anti-Semitic attacks after the monument at Aristotle University marked the loss of Jewish students during the war and was sprayed with blue paint and hate slogans.
It also designates the site of an old Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis in 1942, part of the grounds where the school sits. Earlier, red paint was thrown at the Holocaust memorial in central Thessaloniki and the flowers surrounding it were destroyed. A month before that, vandals had destroyed nine marble Jewish tombstones in an Athens cemetery.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder expressed that “The consternation we feel following such a cowardly desecration is only compounded by the fact that this is not an isolated incident,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
“We will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki and in Greece to combat racism, antisemitism and hatred under difficult circumstances,” he said.