The Case of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial and Its Representation on Instagram
In the past few years, scholars of the Holocaust made enormous progress in introducing digital media into the field. As a historian, I always aim to use a variety of resources to enhance my research, digital tools and social media among them. In 2016, I attended Lessons and Legacies Conference dedicated to “Relevance and Challenges in the Digital Age.” The role of social media in Holocaust remembrance and its ethics became an important part of the discussion. One of the more controversial conversations involved some visitors of Holocaust memorial sites posting their self-portraits or “selfies” on social media. Some attendees defended the visitors’ decisions by claiming it was one of the ways that they interacted with the memorial, that they publicly shared their experience in the form of photography, instead of speaking or writing. However, others rightly pointed out that many of them did so in a disrespectful and trivializing manner.
A year later this topic resurfaced, but this time among general public when an Israeli-German writer Shahak Shapira published pictures of tourists at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial on the website that he designed and audaciously named “Yolocaust,” a combination of the popular social media hashtag YOLO – “You Only Live Once” – and the Holocaust. He uploaded pictures he deemed disrespectful to teach young visitors a lesson. Shapira stripped away the background of the memorial and replaced it with scenes of emaciated bodies and corpses from concentration camps. The photoshopped images went viral, sparking outrage: some expressed their anger at the young people in the pictures for disrespecting the site, others criticized Shapira for doing the same by tempering with the original material for shock value, thus trivializing the suffering of victims by using them as a background. Since those images were public, he could use them, but after the outcry, he provided an email address – “email@example.com” – so that people on those viral pictures could request that an image be removed. Those who hailed Shapira as an online social justice warrior (SJW) made me question the role and impact that any Internet user could have in determining the ethics of the memorial visits and the Holocaust remembrance at large.
Most official social media accounts of the Holocaust memorials tend to feature archival photographs with educational captions, promotional pictures of upcoming events, and photographs of survivors visiting. It is typically the visitors who upload pictures of themselves at memorials. In Sergei Loznitsa’s 2016 powerful documentary with almost no dialogue called “Austerlitz,” he shows thousands of tourists as they look around, chat, yawn, and take selfies at the former sites of Dachau and Sachsenhausen camps. What we do not learn is what makes the visitors behave the way they do. It seems that many visitors fail to grasp the intended message, especially, despite the tremendous effort of the memorial staff and their contributors to educate visitors about the horrors of the Nazi persecution and genocide.
It is absolutely critical that we address the issue of on-site and digital footprint of those who visit Holocaust memorials, particularly as antisemitism and misinformation, including the Holocaust denial, are on the rise across the world. The debate on what constitutes free speech and hate speech continues, while worldwide platforms like Facebook refuse to take responsibility and the justice system at large are still figuring out ways to handle digital crimes and misdemeanors. Today, as white nationalists express their opinions more and more boldly, we cannot let the message of those memorials be misrepresented and misinterpreted. A study published in April, 2018 showed that awareness of the Holocaust is fading in the United States, where more than one-fifth of millennials either have not heard of it or are not sure, if they have.
In my print project, I will examine the role of social media users in Holocaust remembrance by analyzing Instagram images, captions, hashtags, and comments from the past two years, that were “location-tagged” at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. By examining these public social media posts, my goal is find out more about the way people discuss the memorial, their experiences, and the topic of the Holocaust at large. I aim to explore the decision-making process behind the visitors’ posts: from choosing to be in the picture, appearing in a certain way, to possibly editing and then posting it. The ultimate goal is to facilitate a larger discussion about the impact of social media users on the representation of the Holocaust.