The macabre scene at the Barbie Death Camp at this year's Burning Man
The macabre scene at the Barbie Death Camp at this year's Burning Man

‘Auschwitz-themed’ Barbie Death Camp at Burning Man catches ADL’s eye

The San Francisco-based office of the Anti-Defamation League is investigating a macabre art display it called “offensive” and trivializing of the Holocaust at Burning Man, the eight-day saturnalia of built art, mind-bending drugs and social experiments in “radical self-expression” that ended on Labor Day.

Even for the famously brazen Burning Man, held annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the display at the “Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro” was controversial, offending some “Burners,” as festival attendees are called, and even sparking an altercation on Aug. 31 that led to an arrest and a smashed vehicle taillight, a camp leader said.

Photos sent to J. show a large-scale diorama that one person described as “Auschwitz-themed” made with Barbie dolls. A sea of nude Barbies is seen moving toward three full-size kitchen ovens. Some are “crucified” on bright pink crosses. Other photos show toy soldiers with semi-automatic rifles “marching” the Barbies from the rear. A banner strapped to an RV proclaims the Barbie Death Camp “the friendliest concentration camp” at Burning Man. Another reads “arbeit macht plastik frei,” a reference to the message over the Auschwitz gate meaning “work makes you free.” It also says the camp is presented by “Auschwitz Inc.” and “The Mattel Co.”

Mattel, however, had nothing to do with the project.

Burning Man began as a small gathering on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986 and has since exploded into a global attraction, bringing about 70,000 people who erect a “temporary city” in the Nevada desert in late summer. With roots in modern and contemporary art movements like Dadaism and performance art, the gathering boasts more than 1,000 camps, many constructed around themes.

Some people, particularly experienced Burners, saw in the Barbie Death Camp a bit of boundary-pushing gallows humor, social commentary, or even a daring critique of American materialism. Others, though, saw baffling tone deafness, sheer insensitivity or worse. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so offensive,” said one Bay Area festival attendee who was shocked by the display. He asked not to be named because he said he is a witness in an ongoing criminal case involving the broken taillight.

The banner at the “Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro.” Mattel, the makers of Barbie dolls, is not involved.
The banner at the “Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro.” Mattel, the makers of Barbie dolls, is not involved.

“We have received a number of complaints,” said Seth Brysk, the ADL’s regional director. “Certainly individuals have a right to free expression. But using that free expression to trivialize the Holocaust for the sake of political, social or artistic ends is still deeply offensive and inappropriate. And we would ask people not to do so.

“It tarnishes the memories of those who died, including the 6 million Jews and 5 million others,” Brysk said. “Particularly in the current environment, where we have a confluence of survivors no longer around to tell their stories, and increased extremism and hatred, we think it’s more important than ever to preserve and respect the memory of the Holocaust.”

Burning Man, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in San Francisco, did not respond to a request for comment.

The creator of Barbie Death Camp, 65-year-old James Jacoby, wonders what all the fuss is about. He’s staged the same camp at Burning Man for the past 20 years. A photo from 2009 shows almost the same scene as the one depicted this year, with hundreds of Barbie dolls being led toward ovens by armed soldiers and a nearly identical banner strapped to an RV reading “Arbeit macht plastique frei” and “Auschwitz Inc.”

Jacoby is a retired financial manager living in Meadow Vista in the Sierra Foothills. At Burning Man he goes by the name “Doc Pyro” or, simply, “Doc.”

Jacoby, who spoke with J. on Sept. 3, said that he is Jewish and that his father was a World War II Air Force pilot who was shot down over Berlin and captured.

Jacoby said he is sensitive to the possibility that the Barbie Death Camp might be offensive. But that is part of the point.

“We certainly don’t want to trigger anybody,” said Jacoby. “But Burning Man is not a safe space. It’s not Yale University. You don’t get to run and hide from something you don’t like. There’s 1,100 theme camps. If you don’t like ours, go to another one.”

Barbie Death Camp is a part of the “Barbie Death Village,” a Burning Man campsite. Tickets to stay in Barbie Death Village cost between $100 and $200, on top of the $425 entry fee to Burning Man itself. About 220 people camped there this year, Jacoby said.

He said the camp started more or less on a lark with the help of a friend who was in the Jewish fraternity ZBT at UC Santa Barbara. The friend is a wine merchant, hence “wine bistro.”

“We started off small,” Jacoby said. “Just 11 miserable Barbies stuffed into an Easy-Bake Oven.”

There’s 1,100 theme camps. If you don’t like ours, go to another one.

Jacoby said he got the idea for Barbie Death Camp from a National Lampoon joke. He also said, oddly, that part of the reason he’d kept it up over the years was “because it just worked.” The display, he said, has proven itself a sort of aphrodisiac (or at least an ice breaker).

“It’s a chance to meet people and have a friendly conversation,” he said of the concentration camp-themed display, to which Burners often bring their own Barbie dolls. “A couple of guys have gotten laid because women come and stop.”

“It’s a rather sexually charged atmosphere,” he said. “You get a chance to engage people.”

The camp has received some pushback for its over-the-top display in past years, Jacoby and others said, but this year, the negative response was taken to a new level. One Barbie Death Camp organizer who goes by the name “Felony” offered an explanation: “As Burning Man becomes more of a party and less of a cultural experiment, we see less tolerance,” Felony said in an online chat. “Nothing like this year, though.”

Jacoby said he was accused of being a “f***ing Trump supporter” and a “Nazi white supremacist.” That is “nonsense,” he said. “We’ve been doing this since Clinton was president.” Others took photos of the camp, which they said they would be sending to the ADL. Some did.

On Aug. 31, the confrontation turned violent. Jacoby said protesters who were leaving the festival in the afternoon “began to smash our property” and threaten him. In the fracas, Jacoby admitted, someone with the Barbie Death Camp smashed one of the protesters’ car taillights with a mallet. He was arrested and charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and Jacoby bailed him out.

“These people were violent beyond imagination,” he said about the protesters.

While some Burning Man attendees were put off or deeply offended by Barbie Death Camp, others found it to be firmly within bounds, particularly since Burning Man bills itself as a “laboratory” for pushing the limits of social acceptability.

“There are a lot of potentially offensive things at Burning Man,” said Ron Feldman of Berkeley, a longtime Burner who this year went to Shabbat services at Milk and Honey, a well-known Jewish-themed camp. He said he did not hear any talk there of Barbie Death Camp.

“It’s not as if somebody had put this out in their front yard,” he said. “Given the context [of Burning Man], this may not be so outlandish.”

Feldman, who said he donates to the ADL, thinks claims of trivializing the Holocaust are spurious. He referenced depictions of the Holocaust in art, like “Springtime for Hitler,” the parody from the musical “The Producers.” “It’s ironic. It’s political critique and commentary,” he said. “It’s definitely not anti-Jewish in any way.”

Barbie Death Camp is “very well known” at Burning Man, Feldman said. “I find it very much in keeping with” the spirit of the event.

Said Jacoby about his project: “Is it a little dark? Yeah, it’s a little dark.”

“Part of the magic of [Burning Man] is that it’s not vanilla, Disneyland, pro-family,” Jacoby said. “There’s a lot of nudity. A lot of sex. A lot of drugs. It’s not a family-friendly environment. And our camp isn’t, either.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.