A Polish MEP who sparked a backlash after sharing an image depicting a herd of cows wearing the striped prison uniforms of Nazi camps has refused to apologise.
Sylwia Spurek, 43, a former deputy ombudsman for human rights, shared the image entitled “When will we ever learn,” depicting chained cattle lined up against a blood-stained backdrop, with a cow marked with a Star of David.
The six foot oil painting was created by the Australian animal rights activist Jo Frederiks, whose previous works appeared to draw comparisons between the Holocaust and animal agriculture.
Other illustrations by Frederiks include a drawing of a cow chewing a label marked “I am not a number” and a painting of a flock of sheep standing on the railway tracks leading into the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A video montage titled “The Animal Holocaust depicted through Art” published on the illustrator’s website criticises the greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture.
In an email to Jewish News, Frederiks wrote: “The fact we exterminate over seventy-two billion sentient (land) animals every year for food is unjustifiable. Not to mention billions more used and abused for entertainment, clothing and research.
“That IS a Holocaust of incomprehensible magnitude. I am not the one demeaning and belittling the suffering of others. Society is. History has recorded the horror of how Jewish people and others were once regarded as inferior and disposable. However, society today exploits and disposes of those we consider inferior to us: nonhuman animals. Hence the title of the painting, When Will We Ever Learn. “
Spurek, who is a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, shared the image “When will we ever learn” on Wednesday, claiming in a tweet in Polish the illustration gives “food for thought”.
Spurek’s tweet, which called for a “serious” debate on animal welfare, sparked some outrage and drew media coverage in Poland.
One response came from the official Twitter account for Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum, which warned against efforts to instrumentalise the memory of the Holocaust.
Writing in Polish, the memorial tweeted on Wednesday: “The instrumentalisation of the tragedy of people who suffered and died in concentration camps is painful, above all for those who have experienced this terrible story. Animal rights deserve better and wiser defence than the banalisation of terrible human suffering.”
Meanwhile, Jonny Daniels, the British-born Israeli founder of the Poland-based Holocaust commemoration and education group From the Depths, demanded Spurek issue a public apology to survivors and their families.
In an open letter to the European Parliament president David Sassoli on Wednesday, Daniels called for disciplinary action against Spurek.
“I have personally received multiple distressed calls from survivors of the Holocaust and their families, people who were forced to wear this very star [of David] that MEP Spurek is now showing on a cow,” he wrote.
“With the serious lack of Holocaust education and an extremely worrisome rise in antisemitism, especially in Europe, it makes the recent post […] even more offensive, tasteless and hateful,” he added.
But in a statement on Wednesday, Spurek dismissed criticism, saying it is “unfair to say that I could treat instrumentally people’s enormous tragedy.”
She cited the works of the American-Polish author and animal rights advocate Isaac Bashevis Singer, claiming the writer “pointed to an analogy between the treatment of people in concentration camps and the treatment of farm animals many years ago. If we discuss the works of Jo Frederiks, let’s also talk about her inspirations. Let’s show what Singer and other writers, opinion-makers wrote.”
Defending her own record on human rights issues, Spurek claimed she fought fighting antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia and racism “for years” and that she acted against “growing antisemitism” during her period as a deputy ombudsperson in Poland.
Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
David Sassoli was reached for comment.