Should one be allowed to sell Nazi propaganda online? And is it OK to take creative license with Holocaust atrocities?
Amazon, the world’s biggest digital retailer, has been confronted with both of these questions in recent days, highlighting the company’s uniquely powerful role in shaping millions of people’s views of history and culture.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum criticized Amazon Prime on Sunday for “Hunters,” a new television series that shows a fictional human chess game at a concentration camp. On Friday, the memorial joined other Holocaust educators in calling on Amazon to stop selling “The Poisonous Mushroom,” an illustrated children’s book by Julius Streicher, the founder of the Nazi-era anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer.
By Monday, the book was no longer being sold on the site.
The Amazon Prime series “Hunters” stars Al Pacino and tells the story of Nazi hunters in New York City in 1977. Amazon said it was inspired by true events.
But those seeking to educate the public about the Holocaust said the show took dangerous artistic license with a scene in which concentration camp prisoners are used as human chess pieces, and are killed one by one as they are removed from the board.
“Auschwitz was full of horrible pain & suffering documented in the accounts of survivors,” the Auschwitz Memorial said on Twitter. “Inventing a fake game of human chess for @huntersonprime is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers. We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy.”
David Weil, the creator and executive producer of “Hunters,” said in a statement released by Amazon Studios that his grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz and that he had vowed to ensure the promise of “never again” after visiting the concentration camp. He said the show was not a documentary.
“In creating this series,” he said, “it was most important for me to consider what I believe to be the ultimate question and challenge of telling a story about the Holocaust: How do I do so without borrowing from a real person’s specific life or experience?”
Mr. Weil said that he avoided using the tattoo numbers of actual prisoners in the show and that the responsibility to honor Holocaust victims constantly weighed on him during the project.
He said the human chess scene was important “to most powerfully counteract the revisionist narrative that whitewashes Nazi perpetration, by showcasing the most extreme — and representationally truthful — sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews and other victims.”
Mr. Weil said he created a fictional event because he did not want to depict “specific, real acts of trauma.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization named after a concentration camp survivor who spent his life documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust and hunting Nazis to bring them to justice, said the show did not need to rely on dramatization.
“Why invent something?” Rabbi Hier said. “Just tell what occurred.”
The criticism of the scene followed calls from several Holocaust awareness groups for Amazon to stop selling “The Poisonous Mushroom,” an illustrated children’s book by Streicher, published in 1938. On Friday, the Holocaust Educational Trust, which trains students and teachers across Britain, posted a letter on Twitter calling on Amazon U.K. to remove it from its listings.
The book’s text, which likens Jews to the devil, was “designed to brainwash an entire generation of children that Jews were inherently evil,” Karen Pollock, the trust’s chief executive, wrote in an email.
The book was used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials, during which Streicher was convicted of directing and participating in crimes against humanity. The front cover alone draws on longstanding and offensive anti-Semitic tropes, Ms. Pollock wrote in the letter. Throughout his life, Streicher was committed to advocating the annihilation of Jews. Among his final words before he was executed in 1946 were “Heil Hitler.”
The Auschwitz Memorial’s Twitter account shared Ms. Pollock’s letter, along with screen grabs of several other anti-Semitic texts by Streicher that also were being sold on Amazon. “Such books should be removed immediately,” the museum wrote.
“As a bookseller, we are mindful of book censorship throughout history, and we do not take this lightly,” an Amazon representative said in a statement to The New York Times on Friday. “We believe that providing access to written speech is important, including books that some may find objectionable, though we take concerns from the Holocaust Educational Trust seriously and are listening to its feedback.”
On Monday, the URL for the book’s listing page on Amazon’s site redirected to an image of a dog with a “page not found” message. Amazon URLs for other books by Streicher also redirected to the same error page.
This is not the first time that Amazon had removed a listing in response to a controversy. In December, it stopped selling holiday ornaments and a bottle opener displaying images of Auschwitz after the memorial called the products “disturbing and disrespectful” on social media. In July, L.G.B.T.Q. activists persuaded Amazon to stop selling “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality,” written by a vocal proponent of the discredited practice of using “conversion therapy” to turn gay people straight.
Some third-party booksellers that sell titles on Amazon told The Times earlier this year that they would welcome more clarity about why some texts have been prohibited and others have not. They also urged the company to publish a list of prohibited books. Booksellers who stock Amazon’s virtual shelves said the retailer had no policies they could discern and often seemed to be simply reacting to bad publicity, a move that could raise free-speech concerns. Amazon controls about two-thirds of the U.S. book market, including new, used and digital titles.
One argument in favor of allowing the sale of hateful texts is that they may be useful to historians and educators.
Ms. Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust said she did not believe that all of Streicher’s books should be destroyed. “But there’s a difference between being available at a museum/educational institution and just finding it online among toys, gifts and trivia,” she wrote in an email.
David Streitfeld contributed reporting.