An Estonian magazine said Monday it had not meant to cause offence with a mock advertisement showing emaciated prisoners at a Nazi concentration camp, after sparking uproar from Jewish organisations.
"It was published on our jokes page. I think people living in other cultural environments than ours just don't understand it like we do," Sulev Vedler, deputy editor of Eesti Ekspress, told Agence France Presse.
He claimed the "Doctor Mengele weight-loss pill" ad was a swipe at national gas firm GasTerm Eesti, which last month posted a photo of the Auschwitz death camp's notorious "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate on its website.
GasTerm Eesti rapidly pulled the photo and apologised for what it claimed was a misplaced attempt to contrast lethal gas -- which was used to kill Jews at Auschwitz -- with the safe, home-heating variety.
"For us it was an anti-fascist joke and a reaction to the recent, improper advertisement of one Estonian company. We didn't mean to have fun at the expense of any nationality, there is no nationality mentioned in the picture," Vedler said.
But by using the name of Mengele -- a Nazi German doctor who experimented on inmates during World War II -- Eesti Ekpress tapped a symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Jewish groups reacted with “shock” and protested at the magazine, which has the second-highest weekly circulation in Estonia.
"It is incomprehensible that a leading and ostensibly-respectable news weekly in a country which is a member in good standing in the European Union will publish such a perverted attempt at humour at the expense of the Nazis' millions of victims," Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement
Estonia's Jewish community spokeswoman Alla Jakobson told the daily Postimees the country faced "major problems with moral and ethical values".
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet condemned the Eesti Ekspress magazine.
"Something that causes pain and insults so many people can't be called a joke. We all know how many people were brutally killed in concentration camps, and an attempt to turn it into some kind of joke is unacceptable," he said in a radio interview.
The wartime history of Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million people, is highly sensitive.
Some here saw the Nazis as a lesser evil, after Germany drove out Soviet troops, who had seized the country in 1940 and deported thousands of Estonians to their deaths and did so again after the war.
But the Nazis brought their own terror, sometimes helped by local collaborators.
Estonia's pre-war Jewish population was 4,400. Most fled before the 1941 Nazi invasion, but the 1,000 who remained were killed.
The Nazis also sent up to 10,000 foreign Jews to camps in Estonia, where most died.
The Red Army drove out the Nazis in 1944. Estonia was ruled by Moscow until the Soviet bloc crumbled in 1991, and joined the EU in 2004.