JAKARTA, Indonesia – The teenagers smile as they take selfies with a heroically posed Hitler, apparently unaware that the giant backdrop to their happy moment is the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp where more than a million people were exterminated by the Nazi dictator’s regime.
It’s a scene that plays out every day at a waxwork and visual effects museum in Yogyakarta, an Indonesian city better known for its universities, Javanese culture and as the seat of a historic sultanate. The infotainment-style museum, De Mata, is defending the display as “fun” for teenagers.
Human Rights Watch denounced the exhibit as “sickening” and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which campaigns against Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, demanded its immediate removal.
“Everything about it is wrong. It’s hard to find words for how contemptible it is,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center. “The background is disgusting. It mocks the victims who went in and never came out.”
The waxwork portrays Hitler as an imposing and dominant figure, a far cry from the drug-addled physical wreck who committed suicide on April 30, 1945, as Russian forces overwhelmed the German capital, Berlin.
Behind the waxwork is a giant image of Auschwitz and the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” — work sets you free — that appeared over the entrance to Auschwitz and other camps where millions of Jews and others were systematically killed during Germany’s wartime occupation of much of Europe.
To one side of Hitler there’s Darth Vader and directly opposite is Indonesia’s current president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
It’s not the first time Nazism and its symbols have been normalized or even idealized in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation and home to a tiny Jewish community.
A Nazi-themed cafe in the city of Bandung where waiters wore SS uniforms caused anger abroad for several years until reportedly closing its doors at the beginning of this year. In 2014, a music video made by Indonesian pop stars as a tribute to presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto stirred outrage with its Nazi overtones.
The latest episode has surfaced during an upsurge in nationalistic rhetoric in Indonesia.
Warli, the marketing officer for the museum who goes by one name, said he was aware Hitler was responsible for mass murder but defended the waxwork, on display since 2014, as “one of the favorite figures for our visitors to take selfies with.”
“No visitors complained about it. Most of our visitors are having fun because they know this is just an entertainment museum,” he said.
Warli hadn’t heard of the Simon Wiesenthal Center but said he’d discuss its demand to remove the display with De Mata’s owner, businessman Peter Kusuma, and management.
“We will follow the best advice and the response from the public,” he said. “Let people judge whether the character is good or bad.”
Cooper said it was inexcusable that a business would intentionally use Nazism and the Holocaust to make money and deplored the “disconnect” with history.
“When Hitler was finished with Europe he was going to come after the folks in Asia,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher, Andreas Harsono, said the waxwork and its concentration camp backdrop was “sickening” and a reflection that anti-Jewish sentiment in Indonesia is more widespread than generally appreciated.
He said the conflict between Israel and Palestine has fed anti-Semitism in Indonesia for decades but the prejudice has deeper roots in narrow interpretations of the Koran.