COMMENTARY: Prince Harry’s Nazi Costume Insults Those Who Died in Holocaust

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) On Jan. 27, 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous German Nazi death camp in Poland. The two sites, located three kilometers apart, have entered into the world's lexicon as icons of radical evil and the Holocaust.

More than 1.5 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, many in gas chambers maliciously labeled ``showers.'' The asphyxiated bodies were burned in crematoria the retreating Germans unsuccessfully attempted to destroy before the Soviet forces arrived.

I've visited Auschwitz-Birkenau five times. On the last visit my wife joined me, and Marcia described the death camp as ``filled with a sense of dread and evil'' no Holocaust museum or memorial can ever replicate. Thanks to the Polish government, Auschwitz-Birkenau is as it was in 1945. There has been no attempt to ``sanitize'' the site.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the final destination of boxcars filled with Jewish men, women and children who arrived in huge numbers during World War II.

Once the victims were removed from the fetid and urine-filled trains, German guards ``selected'' which Jews were destined for immediate gassing and which were chosen for Dr. Joseph Mengele's ghastly medical experiments. The remaining victims were assigned work tasks that preserved their lives until starvation and disease killed them.

Perhaps because a December 2004 BBC poll indicated that 60 percent of Britons under 35 had never heard of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Queen Elizabeth II will officially commemorate the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation on Jan. 27 in a London ceremony. But the House of Windsor being the dysfunctional family it is, a young ``royal'' has already marred that solemn event.

Twenty-year-old Prince Harry, the younger son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, attended a costume party whose quaint theme was ``Colonials and Natives.'' One partygoer dressed as an American Indian, while another came as a European peasant.

Not to be outdone, Harry appeared in the military uniform of the German ``Afrika Korps,'' which engaged British and American forces in bloody battles during World War II. To complete his party wardrobe, Harry added a Nazi swastika armband. A London newspaper ran the prince's picture with the caption ``Harry the Nazi.''

The harsh negative reaction was swift, and Harry issued the required written contrite apology. Some critics said Harry's behavior rendered the prince unfit for his upcoming military training as a future officer, a hoary tradition for royal family members. Other critics demanded that Harry and his brother, William, upon whom the future of the Windsor monarchy depends, make a personal pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenau to learn firsthand what the swastika means in human history.

Harry's Nazi costume is an insult to the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and it is an insult to the courage of the British men and women who fought the Germans in the sands of North Africa, in the skies over Britain and on the beaches of Normandy.

In addition to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Harry might deign to visit his elderly subjects who are living out their crippled lives at the Royal Military Hospital in the London borough of Chelsea. Many of the wounded were Harry's age when they fought the Nazis more than 60 years ago. But, of course, in those days they did not attend jolly costume parties. They had more serious obligations.

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

Wearing an Afrika Korps uniform is also a personal insult to my family. One of my father's brothers, Hy Rudin, was wounded in early 1943 during the battle at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. It was an American defeat, and represented the first major battle of the green American troops with Gen. Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Uncle Hy told me that as a wounded American Jewish soldier, he was especially fearful of being captured by the Nazis. Fortunately, that did not happen.

Today's German leaders know well that the swastika and other Nazi items are not playful costumes. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl called Harry a ``royal idiot.'' Kohl surely remembers his 1997 meeting with Prince Philip, Harry's grandfather, when Philip offended Kohl by calling him ``Reichskanzler,'' a title last used by Adolf Hitler.

In 2002, Deborah and Gerald Strober published ``The Monarchy: An Oral Biography of Queen Elizabeth II.'' The Strobers note that Harry's ``great-great uncle, the duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII, consorted with Nazi officials, met Hitler and praised his regime. More chilling, he would have been willing to see his brother, King George VI, dethroned and would have been eager to be installed as Hitler's puppet king had the Nazis conquered Britain.'' Another ``royal idiot.''

MO/PH RNS END

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's Senior Interreligious Adviser, is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University.)