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Holocaust-themed escape room thrills Greek youth

Anthee Carassava Athens
March 3, 2019

In a country where anti-Semitism thrives, Greeks describe a Holocaust-themed game offered by an escape room company as "an undeniably entertaining adventure." Anthee Carassava reports from Athens.

A group of young people hold up a list
Image: DW/A. Carassav

In Greece, Schindler's List isn't just seen as an epic, landmark film in the history of Holocaust storytelling. It's an escape room based on a Holocaust-themed game that is taking Greek youth by storm, much to the chagrin of the Jewish community.

The outcry has prompted the company, Great Escape, to change the game's name — a direct reference to Steven Spielberg's film on the Holocaust — to "Secret Agent."

But the game's goal roughly remains the same: to draw up a list of survivors who will be spared a grisly death by enemy forces — a blurred imitation of the lists featured in the award-winning Hollywood movie.

While the game, advertised prominently on the company's website, makes no explicit reference to Jews or the Holocaust, initial descriptions featured on Greek websites lured players, challenging them to assist a German businessman, Oskar Schindler, in "saving as many innocent people from the pursuit of SS forces," in Krakow, Poland.

Officials contacted at the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) have condemned the game, saying they were considering taking action.

Read moreHow Greece is combating widespread anti-Semitism

"It's not about anti-Semitism," said Vice President Victor Eliezer. "The so-called success of these games hinges on ignorance sweeping [through] Greek society. Ask around, and chances are that most Greeks will tell you Schindler was some sort of rock star or soccer player."

'Dehumanizing and trivializing'

An escape room in Greece
Image: DW/A. Carassav

That the creators altered the game's name without effectively changing the plot, he said, signals even greater disrespect.

"All I wish is for them to take a trip to Auschwitz to sense, even for a fraction of a second, the terror of death in a German concentration camp. Only then can there be hope that they no longer move to debase human suffering," Eliezer told DW.

The council's fury has gone almost unnoticed in Greece. But US activists have caught on and they are livid.

"To take an experience like the Holocaust that was dehumanizing for the victims and to turn that into a game trivializes not just the event, but it trivializes their suffering," said Victoria Barnett, director of the Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in an interview with Medium. "Ethical behavior is grounded in respect and empathy for other people."

Escape rooms have become hugely popular throughout Greece. They're part of a global fad that has small groups of players scrambling to find clues and solve puzzles while trying to find their way out of a themed space within an hour.

The contentious game sprang from the heart of Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city and home to a vibrant Jewish community that was almost completely wiped out by Nazi forces in 1943. Before World War II, Thessaloniki's Jewish community counted among the largest in the world, lending the northern Greek city the titles of Mother of Israel and Jerusalem of the Balkans.

Read moreGreece: Thessaloniki grapples with Holocaust taboo

At the height of World War II more than 44,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps in central Europe. Just a handful of survivors returned to a city that had lost 96 percent of its Jewish community.

"We cannot forget. We shall not forget. We shouldn't forget," David Saltiel, the president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, told Medium.

A Jewish man stands in front of a Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki
Image: picture alliance / AP Photo

Read moreNazi collaboration: A taboo topic in Greece

Great Escape

The game in question is one of eight offered by the Great Escape company. It's advertised as "one of the most exciting escape rooms."

Company officials reached by telephone in Thessaloniki angrily refused to comment on the controversy. Company officials in Athens insisted the game bore no link to the Holocaust.

Players approached by DW refused to comment. But they did not seem to be concerned about the impact the venture could have in a country with strong streak of anti-Semitism. Instead, reviews posted on the company's website and TripAdvisor showed hundreds of people rating it as an "excellent" experience. One person billed it as "an undeniably entertaining adventure."

It is not the first time an escape room has drawn on the Holocaust.

In 2016 a Dutch company tapped into one of the darkest hours of the world's history by creating an Anne Frank bunker game room. A year later, KIS protested against "Auschwitz," another escape room game leading players into a concentration camp setting in Galatsi, on the outskirts of Athens.

"The company renamed the game but kept it running," a KIS official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It's unclear, however, whether the game is still operating.

Jewish reactions to the Holocaust-themed games have gained little traction in Greece, where one of Europe's most violent neo-Nazi groupings, Golden Dawn, regularly garners about 8 percent of the nation's vote and ranks as the third-biggest political party.

"This is all truly unfortunate," said Eliezer of the central Jewish council. "But it's a warning: Marketing the Holocaust and the memory of those who perished opens one of the darkest chapters in human history. We are obligated to stop that from happening again."