Barbara Kay: Sometimes a shower is just a shower. Even at Auschwitz

Sprinklers set up at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland, to help visitors deal with extreme heat, remind some of the gas "showers" used at the camp to murder Jews.

The refugee crisis in Europe is having the effect of peeling back the thin veneer of politeness that oils the wheels of civic reciprocity. Fear is making everyone jumpy: There are so many of “them”; where will they all go? How will this affect “us”? And then there is the very real, and daunting problem of actually keeping track of people as individuals, as the waves keep coming.

Authorities in the Czech Republic decided it would be efficient to write numbers on the actual skin of Syrian migrants as they were pulled off trains this week at Breclav station. Immediately, human rights and Jewish groups expressed outrage over the apparent insensitivity to the historical resonance of Holocaust concentration-camp victims, who had identifying numbers tattooed on their inner arms. The Czech government said Thursday it had stopped the practice, even though the process had by their own account been initiated in ignorance of its associations.

Other incidents indicate the extreme touchiness around mordant symbolism from past European tragedy. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum of Poland came under fire from at least one irate visitor this week for installing sprinkler showers at its entrance to combat the extreme heat, alluding to the infamous gas chambers in Auschwitz during the Holocaust that were structured as showers, with the sprinklers spewing poison gas instead of water. And Prime Minister David Cameron was castigated for using the word “swarm” – which has associations with vermin, a word often applied to Jews and Roma by the Nazis – to describe the throngs of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to European shores.

On the one hand, such sensitivity to odious symbols of the past is laudable. It means that the evils of Europe’s history have not been forgotten, and that important lessons about the perils of racism and where it can lead have been learned. On the other, making a fetish of symbols that have not been adduced with ill intention is a bit absurd. The word “swarm” is infelicitous in the circumstances, not because Cameron was expressing distaste for or superiority over their ethnic provenance, but because the word is associated with insects that are a threat, and because it diminishes them as individuals. Sprinklers to mist people in scorching weather is a very considerate idea. Nobody thought it up to insult the memory of gassed Jews, any more than having one lineup for ticket holders and one lineup for those who had yet to buy their tickets would be an insensitive reminder of the life-and-death selection process that used to take place at Auschwitz.

As for writing numbers on people’s hands – in the photo accompanying the New York Times article, the officer is writing a number on the back of a man’s hand, not on his inner arm – it is nonsense to read anything negative into the idea. With so many people and so little time to process them, it would be very easy to lose track of who is who, if you only have paperwork to go by. A system of hands-on identification as a means to streamline the initial processing makes perfect sense. People don’t get lost in the shuffle, and the next officer down the line doesn’t make an error. There was no malicious intention in the idea. To impugn the motives of the authorities on the basis of such a superficial similarity is as foolish as criticizing those who plan massive indoor-outdoor events where hands get stamped to identify those who have paid the entrance fee.

It’s reasonable for Europeans to feel tension over a situation that threatens to get out of control. But harking back to the horrors of the Holocaust is completely unwarranted. A felt pen is not a tattoo gun, and in this case a number is just a number. The governments of countries dealing with the unwieldy logistics of processing many people efficiently have enough problems without having to fend off accusations that link them to evil intentions. Take a deep breath, people. This is a migratory crisis, to be sure, but it is not a genocide in the making.

National Post