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The ‘Schindler’s List’ Escape Room Is Real, and I Got Out

Inside a dubious effort to transform the tragedies of the Holocaust into a 60-minute puzzle game

Partial set up of The Schindler’s List Escape Room, now known as The Secret Agent Escape Room. Source: Great Escape Rooms Thessaloniki

Our escape room experience in Thessaloniki, Greece, began like any other. The attendant explained the kinds of locks we’d encounter, showed us the items we weren’t supposed to move, and briefed us on the hints we’d get from the TV screen in the corner of the room. Still, I felt uneasy. And not because we were being locked in a room with a ticking clock or because I worried we wouldn’t get out.

No, I felt uneasy because the music that accompanied his instructions was the theme song to the movie Schindler’s List. And because the escape game was called “Schindler’s List.”

When I first saw the room on the company’s website, I did a double take. Advertised as “one of the most exciting escape rooms” in Thessaloniki, the game’s description mirrored the synopsis of Steven Spielberg’s celebrated film so closely that it could’ve been written by IMDB. There was the year (1939), the location (Krakow, Poland), and the storyline (a German businessman comes to “earn money from the war” but ends up “saving as many innocents as possible from the SS”). On the company’s Facebook page were photos of smiling patrons holding what I presumed were lists of those they’d saved. “Cute,” someone had written under one of them. A post advertising the room as “the most atmospheric” had more than 700 likes.

Tone-deaf depictions of the Holocaust in games is surprisingly common. Just recently, a Ukrainian company built an online game that takes place in an extermination camp — complete with prisoners in striped clothes and Nazi look-alike guards. In 2017, two companies — one in Prague, Czech Republic, and one in Athens, Greece — offered its patrons escape rooms modeled after the gas chambers and crematoriums of Auschwitz.

To create entertainment out of tragedy is to demean, disregard, and forget the suffering of its victims.

The backlash to those instances was swift and effective. The Ukrainian company canceled the game’s development, and both the Czech and Greek companies closed the rooms. But somehow, Thessaloniki’s Schindler’s List escape room had evaded scrutiny. The company that offered it boasted an almost-perfect five-star rating on TripAdvisor, it had amassed more than 2,000 views on several YouTube videos promoting the game, and the company’s site includes at least one review that referred to the Schindler’s List room as “enchanting.”

How does an amusement that reduces the Holocaust to a game exist — and thrive — for almost two years and without any repercussions? More important, how could it happen in Thessaloniki — a city that lost 96 percent of its Jewish population to the gas chambers of Auschwitz? To find out, I traveled to Thessaloniki to speak with the people who created it.

The Schindler’s List escape room was set up with all the trappings of 1930s Europe: An antique sofa stands against the wall. A lamp casts soft light over a wooden desk, the likes of which Oscar Schindler may have had in his factory office. Two smoking pipes on a coffee table reek of stale tobacco. I brought my husband along with me for the experience, and for 60 minutes, the two of us searched for clues in an old armoire, a trunk with a false bottom, and on a shelf full of books with yellowing pages. We struggled to open a Meilink-type safe; after we tried and failed five times, the attendant asked if he could come in to help. Ten minutes before our time was up, our remaining final objective — “a list of innocents” — was still missing.

There was something else missing. The Schindler’s List escape room is located in the heart of where Thessaloniki’s Jewish community thrived for centuries — just a block away from both the Jewish Museum and the offices of today’s Jewish Community Center. As we played, however, I realized that the creators of the escape room had completely erased Jews from Oscar Schindler’s story. When the “list of innocents” finally materialized, it was a blurred imitation of lists seen in the movie. But the game never mentioned deportations, or the Final Solution, or the fate of Thessaloniki’s Jewry.

And yet the Holocaust was undeniably present. It was in the Auschwitz references in the introduction; in the old pair of wire-frame glasses, lenses missing, used as a prop; and in the chilling acoustics of people screaming, dogs barking, and Germans shouting. A suitcase, the likes of which deportees carried, sat under a couch; spent bullet shells were lined up on a table; and a metal-mesh fence ran the length of the room. Hints were announced by a gunshot, sometimes two. Every time one rang out, I flinched.

Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece. Located about 500 kilometers north of Athens, it’s famous for its beautiful waterfront, illustrious history, foodie culture, and its people — friendly, warm, and welcoming. While this description could apply to many places in Greece, one thing sets the city apart: For five centuries, Thessaloniki was such a vibrant center of Jewish life that the 16th-century poet Samuel Oskuhe referred to it as the “Mother of Israel.”

Although it’s believed that Jews had settled here almost since its inception, the turning point in the city’s Jewish history came in the 15th century, when Spanish Jews landed on the city’s shores. Expelled from Spain, they were welcomed by the Ottomans; by the time World War II started, 50,000 Jews lived in Thessaloniki — more than a third of the city’s population. “Salonica [has always been] home. It was a place where Jews were never prosecuted, never had a ghetto, never had restriction for their profession. They lived like free people, like everybody else,” says Erika Perahia, a resident and the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. But all that changed on April 9, 1941, when the German army occupied the city.

For two years, the Nazis humiliated Salonica’s Jewish citizens, looted their shops, and confiscated their property. Transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau began two years later; over the course of the next six months, almost 44,000 Jews were deported. Of them, just a small handful survived. By the end of August 1943, the city that was once known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans had lost its entire Jewish community.

A game this shouldn’t be. And yet it is.

“Ethical behavior is grounded in respect and empathy for other people,” says Victoria Barnett, director of Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “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.” Auschwitz survivor Heinz Kounio agrees. Deported from Thessaloniki at age 16 on the very first transport, he still speaks about his experiences whenever asked. “You cannot play with such tragic happening — play a game with it,” Kounio says. For him, the Holocaust should never be reduced to a game. To create entertainment out of tragedy is to demean, disregard, and forget the suffering of its victims.

But forgetting is exactly Greece’s problem. For decades, the country remained silent about the Holocaust. “After the war, Greeks [engaged in] mnemocide. They erased everything,” says Elias Matalon, the son of Holocaust survivors. Confronting history often meant acknowledging the benefits many Greek Christians reaped from the annihilation of their Jewish neighbors. Deportations were convenient — with Jews gone, their businesses, homes, and belongings were there for the taking. After the war, survivors who returned to Thessaloniki — about 2,000 of them — didn’t feel welcome. “There was this feeling that [Jews] don’t belong, that they were strangers,” Perahia says.

Today, the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, about 1,300 members in all, takes an active role in speaking about the city’s Jewry. “We are trying to share our legacy, to make people know the history of Salonica’s Jews as being part of the history [here],” says Larry Sefiha, vice president of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. That includes remembering the Holocaust. A memorial to Thessaloniki’s Jewish victims now stands on the same square where thousands were humiliated in 1942, and a Holocaust museum is being built on the spot from which Jews were deported.

The patrons, I was told, didn’t think of it as insensitive or offensive, and the owners considered it educational.

To educate the youth, the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki offers workshops to teachers and guided tours to students. “We start with ‘what is a Jew,’” says Lucy Nachmia, executive secretary of the museum. She lists the common stereotypes she hears on a regular basis: “[Jews] have a big nose, they have curly hair, they all wear a kippah, they have a different skull.” This is still a society where prejudices run deep, stoked by centuries-old hate, neo-Nazi parties like Golden Dawn, and by the Greek Orthodox Church, which continues to blame Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus.

For David Saltiel, president of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, eliminating this hate is a priority. “Books in elementary school say we [killed] Christ. If children are poisoned when they are [young,] how can you change their ideas when they are [older]? In a way, it’s a language of hate against the Jews,” he says. According to a 2015 ADL Global Survey, anti-Semitism levels in Greece are the highest in Europe. This animosity, coupled with ignorance due to decades-long obliteration of Holocaust memory, creates a fertile ground for games like the Schindler’s List–modeled escape room.

After we finished the game, with the coveted “list” in hand, I had a short conversation with the staff. I learned that their parent company in Athens had also offered a Schindler’s List room to its patrons and, after the backlash in early 2017, had changed the game’s name, though not the content: The description still reads very much Schindler’s List adjacent. In Thessaloniki, however, the game had flown under the radar. The patrons, I was told, didn’t think of it as insensitive or offensive, and the owners considered it educational.

To find out whether tragedy-based entertainment — games included — can be educational, I connected with Journeys in Film, a U.S.-based organization that helps teachers educate students on a variety of global issues through film and games. “Both [movies and games] can work if you meet certain standards. It depends on how a game is designed and what the purpose is,” said Eileen Mattingly, the organization’s education director. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s film, the organization recently released a Schindler’s List curriculum. “It makes the film a starting point for additional learning,” Mattingly told me.

The Thessaloniki escape room didn’t teach me anything, nor did it serve as an impetus to learn. If there was any takeaway, it was that the horrors of the Holocaust are too complex and too severe to be addressed during an hour-long activity focused on searching for clues and guessing lock combinations.

“Historically, in terms of trying to recreate [tragedy into a game] that helps teach people about it, there is no way to do it without distorting it,” says Barnett of the Holocaust Museum. “There’s been debate among Holocaust educators about this kind of thing, especially about simulation exercises where they try to reenact something in the classroom. And there is pretty much a consensus that it’s not a sound pedagogical method, because you cannot recreate the dehumanization and the horror of that experience — you don’t want to recreate it. Any kind of reenactment will inevitably distort what really happened.”

Playing with the Holocaust doesn’t just distort and invalidate survivor experiences. Anti-Semitism is still all too real, and reducing the Holocaust to a game at a time when Jewish people are again feeling threatened bolsters that threat and emboldens its perpetrators.

The owners of the Thessaloniki escape room didn’t seem to be concerned with the potential impact of their venture — at least not as concerned as they were with appearances. Within hours after I visited the Schindler’s List escape room, the company renamed it to Secret Agent — but it’s unclear if anything else changed. The description of the Secret Agent game is identical to the Schindler’s List game. The owner didn’t show up for the interview we scheduled, nor did she respond to multiple requests for comment. The parent company in Athens didn’t want to speak to me, either. Meanwhile, both continue to offer the game, and neither appears to be at all apologetic about it.

When I spoke to prominent members of the Thessaloniki Jewish community, they didn’t know about the Schindler’s List escape room operating in the city. Now that they do, they plan to review the situation. “We cannot forget. We shall not forget. We shouldn’t forget,” Saltiel says. “You have the extreme right in Europe, in Greece, everywhere. They speak again the same words, and if we don’t react and condemn, it will happen again. Maybe not in the same way, but it will happen. And maybe we are the only ones that can tell you what happened, because it happened to us.”

A freelance writer and an artist. Words in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC, and NPR, among others.

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