Carnival of the Grotesque

By Rolene Marks

Nazis in sequins, Hassidim with the bodies of insects, crematoria on floats – it sounds like a debauched nightmare. It is. It is also a horrible new trend that seems to be occurring in carnivals that are taking place in Europe.

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Offensive medieval stereotypes and imagery from our darkest time in history, the Holocaust, seem fair game for decorating floats and inspiring dance routines. To say that this is hurtful and offensive is an understatement. Just 75 years after the end of World War II and the liberation of death camps like Auschwitz, Majdanek and others and the decimation of Europe’s Jews, this repugnant imagery accompanied by rhetoric that is just as vile, has reared its head once again in towns and cities across the continent.

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Men wearing suits portraying Haredi Jews with an ant’s abdomen and legs at the annual procession of the carnival in Aalst, Belgium, Feb. 23, 2020. (JTA/Cnaan Liphshiz)

In the Belgian town of Aalst, just a few kilometres from the capital, Brussels, an annual parade has captured headlines around the world. Once celebrated and endorsed by UNESCO for its nod to cultural heritage, the parade has been condemned and delisted – the first in the history of the UN agency.  The reason for this is because of overt antisemitism and racism. For several years, Jews have been the punchline in the joke that is the Aalst parade. Nobody is laughing. The caricatures of Jews that feature ugly, medieval stereotypes are dangerous and profoundly hurtful. The imagery and accusations hearken back to the darkest time in Jewish history and it is puzzling that Belgium, who saw tens of thousands of Jews deported to death camps has allowed for this to resurface. In 2019, the floats featured exaggerated images of Orthodox Jews, with enlarged hooked noses, bags of money and surrounded by rats. This year, the same theme of vermin took centre stage. This year’s float featured men wearing Hassidic hats with the bodies of insects, fake hooknoses and silver face paint. The float also featured a large parchment sign proclaiming six “regulations” handed down by the made-up “Jewish festival committee.” They include “No Jews in the procession; no mocking Jews; don’t ever tell the truth about the Jew; what the Jew wants will happen; all drugs and black money is ours.” Every ugly stereotypic anti-Semitic trope was trotted out for the world to see and it sparked outrage –except it seems for the people of Aalst. The town’s far right leaning mayor declared that it would be “unavoidable” that Jews would be mocked again.  The citizens of the town were defiant.

People dressed as ultra-Orthodox Jews/ants are seen before the start of the Aalst Carnival’s on February 23, 2020, in Aalst, Belgium. (James Arthur Gekiere/AFP)

“This is just a joke, and we can joke about whatever we want here,” said a man, who claimed he was 26 years old and works in computers.  Global Jewry is not laughing. At a time when levels of antisemitism are at alarming levels, events like this are profoundly unnerving and dangerous.

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The parade might have had its roots in the Middle Ages, and it seems that it has hardly progressed since then.

What has seemingly started in the Belgian town of Aalst, seems to be finding a home in Spain as well.

In the last month, Spain has been home to two of these carnival parades.

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A man wearing a fake hooked nose and carrying a sign warning readers not to “tell the truth about the Jew” at the annual procession of the carnival in Aalst, Belgium, Feb. 23, 2020. (JTA/Cnaan Liphshiz)

In the town of Campo de Criptana, a parade was held as part of the annual Castilla La Mancha festival.  As part of their parade, they featured women in costumes depicting concentration camp victims carrying Israeli flags and men wearing replicas of the uniforms of SS officers from the German army. They paraded and danced to loud dance music emitted from a float that carried two towers that resembled smokestacks. They twirled, they danced, they wore sequins.

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Nazis and Israeli Holocaust flag bearing women are the central theme for Spain’s Carnival celebrations in the village of Campo de Criptana, Castile-La Mancha, Spain on February 24, 2020.

Israel’s ambassador to Spain, Rodica Radian-Gordon, denounced the parade calling it “a detestable banalization of the Holocaust,” an “affront to the victims” and “an intolerable manifestation of anti-Semitism.”

The Auschwitz museum condemned it for trivializing the Holocaust and Spain’s minister of foreign affairs, Arancha González Laya, also said on Twitter that she was “horrified by the performance.” After contacting the organizers, she said they have apologized to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain. They apparently thought that they were “paying tribute”. Some tribute!

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At the Campo de Criptana parade, kids dressed as Jewish children with yellow stars pinned to their chests. (Photo by Dimas Donate)

The same day, the town of Badajos, situated west of Madrid, had their own carnival parade which featured participants wearing uniforms that were part SS and part concentration camp prisoner while holding up signs reading “the same”. There is no tribute here, only an ode to bad taste.

I took to social media to see what people were saying. Perhaps I should not have – the results were disturbing.

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At a Holocaust-themed carnival in Badajos, Spain, February 23, 2020, dancers alongside Auschwitz floats, equate Jews with Nazis. (Extremadura Canal via JTA)

Words like “spectacular” and “wonderfully artistic” were used and when I responded to one post asking whether genocide was spectacular, I was roundly told off – and called ignorant. The irony is staggering – but it is evident that now more than ever, Holocaust education is necessary.

This type of antisemitic posturing is not new. Last April, Polish villagers at an Easter procession beat and burned an effigy of a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew, particularly painful given the old accusation of deicide and Poland’s tragic Jewish past.

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Rise in antisemitism in Poland

Historians familiar with the antisemitic record of Europe’s carnivals; the emergence of this theme in modern-day parades is an organic continuation of a centuries-old tradition. This type of antisemitism is often seen at the religious Carnival that celebrates Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter.

It is going to take a lot more than a costume change to fix the hurt and offence caused by these carnivals of the grotesque. It is going to take education and a deep search into Europe’s soul to ask the question:

Has anything been learnt from the Continent’s painful and tragic record of Jewish persecution?”

Evidently not!



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