Seeing a swastika on one of my classmate’s shirts was not something I ever expected to see. And yet, as I was walking to class one day, I thought I saw someone wearing one. I did a double-take. I mean, it was a small pattern, so maybe I was mistaken. And besides, if someone wore a symbol of the Nazi party to class, wouldn’t there be an angry mob of socially-conscious students following him? But no, this student was weaving between our peers, his shirt seemingly unnoticed.
I didn’t get the chance to examine the shirt more closely, so I can’t say for sure if he was wearing the symbol, but my curiosity was peaked. When I got back to my dorm, I searched “swastika shirt” to find that not only is the internet full of places where neo-Nazis can buy these shirts, but mainstream clothing stores that have (supposedly) unknowingly mass-produced and sold attire that resembles holocaust or Nazi symbols to the general public for years.
Urban Outfitter’s was under fire last month for selling a tapestry that looked eerily similar to the uniform gay men would wear in concentration camps. And in 2012, the store sold a shirt featuring a yellow star on the pocket, which looked a lot like the uniforms that Jews were forced to wear in the camps. Recently, the women’s clothing store Zara sold a set of striped pajamas with a yellow star on the breast that also looked much like these uniforms. And just like Urban Outfitters, this wasn’t their first offense; they were also criticized for selling a floral print handbag that had swastikas hidden in the print. Twitter users found the perfect term for the fashion blunder when they accused Mango of going “Nazi chic” after they started selling a blouse patterned with siegrunes that were popular with Nazis. Even Wal Mart sold a poster of a Nazi concentration camp gate on their online home decor section before they received feedback from outraged customers.
It’s not uncommon for a symbol’s connotative meaning to change throughout time. The swastika, the official symbol of the Nazi party, and visually similar symbols, were once a symbols of good luck and peace in many cultures, but after World War 2, the symbol became universally associated with genocide and racism. Now that this symbol is seeping into fashion, what does that say about the people wearing it?
Andrew Beiter, education director of the Holocaust Research Center of Buffalo and 8th grade social studies teacher, believes that the people buying this clothing aren’t actually into neo-Nazism, but are just people who are uneducated on the dangers of genocide, and what the symbol represents.”It indicates a profound lack of understanding and a need for holocaust education,” he said, “which is something we should all be upset about.”
Beiter explained that when symbols representing racism or genocide are seen every day, people stop noticing them, which is dangerous in itself. “If we treat these symbols like they’re harmless, then when these symbols are used in a hateful wear, our radar is dimmed.”
Of course, with any fashion statement, people can argue that the swastika and other graphics used in concentration camps uniforms are “just symbols.” But unlike most symbols, these ones were used to brand millions of people before they were starved, tortured and murdered. What many people seem to forget is that World War two just ended in the 40s and there are still Holocaust survivors living today. Imagine how shocking it would be for them to see others willing wear these uniforms.
Ya’ara Misumi Goldman, a Jewish college student, makes sure she points out when someone makes light of Nazi culture. “My friends know that if they do make a reference to the Nazis or the Holocaust, even if it is just someone saying that they’re a grammar Nazi, I will tell them that it’s not okay to just throw around any terms that promotes racism.” Goldman has experienced prejudice herself, even from admitted neo-Nazi’s, who weren’t shy about posting content encouraging the “annihilation of all Jews” online.
Though most people make these type of comments out of jest, she believes it is important to remind people that not everyone who makes anti-Semitic comments are joking. “I believe many of the people who make Nazi jokes don’t realize that there are actual Neo-Nazis out there,” she said.
While most of these neo-Nazi’s, at least in the United States, seem to be online, hiding behind anonymous blogs and websites, there is always the fear that their opinions and symbols will become so “normal” that they may bleed into “real life”, making these Neo-Nazis feel safe to express their racist and hateful opinions in real-time. And if that happens, all of the groups that were targeted by the Nazis, (Jews, Gypsies, the disabled and homosexual) would have to live in fear of encountering these prejudices every time they left their house.
Beiter said that while most of his students have heard about the holocaust, which he credits in part to The History Channel, he believes that many of them don’t understand the role of resistance in genocide. “Most 8th graders don’t realize that Hitler didn’t kill 11 million people himself,” he said, explaining that secretaries, chemists, architects, lawyers , doctors and countless other professionals were involved in the holocaust. “Many students don’t understand how smart Germans made horrible decisions.”
During the lengthy holocaust unit in his eight grade class, Beiter tries to personalize the number of 11 million by having students focus on the story of one victim. After that, he moves on to the cause of genocide. “The history of the holocaust is in short form the history, or the future, of humanity. Meaning, if we don’t figure out how genocides happen, and why dictators grow, and what their growth patterns are, we will repeat their mistakes.”
Beiter explained that one of the struggles of teaching the history of genocide is that even if you educate one generation, they will eventually die, taking that knowledge with them, which is why it’s disturbing that Nazi imagery is becoming something used in fashion. It may mean that people are forgetting how serious that imagery actually is.
So what can we do to stop the normalization of seeing holocaust or Nazi imagery? The first thing we can do is not purchase clothing from the stores that sell “Nazi chic” clothing, so we don’t support future anti-Semitic designs. And though it’s a bit cliché, and as Beiter says, “probably an unrealistic high standard” we can make an effort to never forget the lives that were lost because of these symbols, which means not only pointing out when our peers make an inappropriate comment about the deaths, but making a conscious effort to be aware of the injustices around us, so that we can write letters to our government officials and help refugees when the signs of genocide start showing themselves.
Goldman said,” If you hear someone making jokes about Nazis, the holocaust, or anything similar, speak out. Say that it’s not ok.” She also suggested boycotting stores that sell clothing featuring these symbols, but quietly, in a way that doesn’t get the store any publicity. She said. “We can’t change people, we can only try and make them understand and change themselves”