The sculpture named HIM by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan had been knocking around the art world for more than a decade without gathering much attention. Showing what appears to be a child with the head of Adolf Hitler kneeling in prayer, it remained one of the mildest and least remarked works of an artist famous for ribald anti-clerical and anti-corporate provocations. All that changed last month when the Polish Centre for Contemporary Art mounted Cattelan's HIM in a secluded corner of what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto, the neighbourhood where German forces under the dictator's command confined thousands of Jews before shipping them to death campsin the Second World War.
Visible only from a distance and from behind, the sculpture, which appeared in 2002 at the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto, has angered many Jewish groups, with the Simon Weisenthal Center denouncing it as "a senseless provocation which insults the memory of the Nazis' Jewish victims."
"As far as the Jews were concerned, Hitler's only 'prayer' was that they be wiped off the face of the Earth," the group's Israel director, Efraim Zuroff, said in a statement.
But Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, defended what he called the potential "educational value" of a work that could "force us to face the evil in the world." As the art centre pointed out in its commentary on the work, "Every criminal was once a tender, innocent and defenceless child."