Mickey Mouse swastika art sparks anger in Poland

An art gallery's exhibition poster that features a Mickey Mouse head and a swastika has outraged many in Poland, which lost 6 million citizens to the Holocaust.

Lukasz Ogrodowczyk/AFP Photo/Newscom
File picture of a large banner bearing a swastika and the image of Mickey Mouse, reading "Poznan - the capital of world-class art," is displayed on Woroniecka Street near the Old Town Square in Poznan, Poland on June 18.

Abnormals Gallery saw the swastika-featuring poster as a catchy way to promote its upcoming exhibition, Abnormal Nudes, in the Polish city of Poznan. But the decision to hang the oversized artwork (which spans several stories) on the outside of the gallery building has sparked outrage, vandalism, and even threats of legal action. The furor is a reminder of the potency of the symbol in a country that lost some 3 million Jews to the Holocaust.

The gallery says the image by Italian artist Max Papeschi – which features a nude woman with a Mickey Mouse head lying under a large swastika – serves to mock the profoundly controversial symbol. The image belongs to the Papeschi series titled "Politically Incorrect," which the artist says targets the "horrors" of the lifestyle in the United States. Papeschi’s works are to be exhibited with those of 30 other international artists.

"The artist clearly aimed at ridiculing the swastika,” says Maria Czarnecka, Abnormals Gallery’s manager. "Papeschi’s art piece shows that this symbol has become a part of pop culture, stripped from its original meaning,” she adds.

But a Poznan city councilor saw it differently, asking the local prosecutor's office to investigate the case under a Polish law that criminalizes spreading Nazi ideology and symbols, including the swastika. The prosecutor's office declined, saying the poster was art.

"For Poles, the swastika stands for the suffering and death of over 6 million Polish citizens,” councilor Norbert Napieraj wrote in his motion to the prosecutor’s office, as quoted by the Polish news agency PAP, referring to the World War II extermination of Jewish and Christian Poles in Nazi death camps.

Emotions reached their peak in late June, when the poster was vandalized by unknown perpetrators. The manager of the gallery, which opens in September, told journalists that the police are currently investigating the incident. The outdoor banner came down this week, though Ms. Czarnecka says she will put it back up.

Prior to World War II, Poland was home to a 3.47 million-strong Jewish minority. In the postwar period, the country’s Communist authorities continued to regard Polish Jews with suspicion despite the minority’s decimation in the Holocaust. In 1968, an interparty struggle for power unleashed a new wave of persecution, and many of Poland's remaining survivors were forced to leave the country.

At present, Poland’s Jewish community numbers about 25,000 members. Among most Poles today, anti-Semitism is stigmatized and rarely appears in the public debate.

But such incidents have the potential to reopen the wounds of the Holocaust, says Alicja Kobus, head of the Jewish community in Poznan. She adds, however, that since she helped reenergize the local community 11 years ago, with a synagogue opening in 2009, she has experienced numerous expressions of kindness and positive feedback.

"Our relations with both the Polish state and the society are exemplary, and I try to highlight the positives every time I’m asked this question by foreign officials,” says Ms. Kobus. "Personally, I think that those who create such art need to give their life a serious thought.

"Life keeps on going, and the future is what is most important," she adds. "We will pursue to win over hearts and minds by giving a good example of our faith.”

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