Print Project Proposal: Social Media and Its Role in Holocaust Remembrance

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 – “undouche.me@yolocaust.de” – 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.

Time Travel and Word Clouds: A Short Guide to Three Fun and Informative Digital History Websites

Practicums Review Post for January 21:

a) PhilaPlace is an interactive website about space, time, and Philly. It was created by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 2005; it connects stories to places across time in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. It has different formats: text, pictures, audio and video clips, and podcasts. It also includes community programs and publications, from workshops for teachers, to trolley tours, and exhibits.

PhilaPlace focuses on two areas: Old Southwark and the Greater Northern Liberties, they were always home to immigrants and working class. Philadelphia was known as a multi-ethnic “workshop of the world.” By using the landscape as a lens, PhilaPlace reveals how each population that arrives in a neighborhood creates new histories, traditions, and memories tied to place. Residents of Philly are encouraged to interact with and contribute to this project. Studies showed that younger users of this website wanted to experience the neighborhoods on their own while older audiences wanted to continue to have a guided experience.

Perhaps the most fun aspect of this website is its map. By clicking on any pin, you are given a well-written and easily-digestible information about the place. You would feel like you are walking through the city with a very-knowledgeable friend who tells you about Philadelphia’s past and present. While using it, you become ever-more aware of the concept of space in an exciting way.

b) Historypin is a website that collects, curates, and structures stories to bring people together, one story at a time. It hosts 365,951 stories pinned across 27,844 projects and tours – across 2,600 cities. It is built by a community of 80,000+ storytellers, archivists and citizen historians. Historypin is a not-for-profit organization. It no longer has a community forum due to technical issues, and also probably online harassment. To sign up, go to the top right corner; the easiest way is do so through Facebook. Everyone with a profile can create a collection, and upload images and story to the website. To add a pin: go to the profile page, “add a pin” or “create a tour” would be on the right side. One of the most popular collections is San Francisco MTA archival collection. By navigating the arrow on the map, you can view pins, which then appear as old archival photos. It feels like you are traveling in the past but with useful context provided in text. This website is useful for small organizations that want a platform or to create even an easily accessible tour.

c) Wordle helps you generate “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. Because the Wordle web toy does not work, you should install a desktop version of it on your laptop. Do not try to use the web one, even after downloading Firefox Extended Support Release, it does not work. Instead, if you do not have it, download and install Java. Then download Worldle for Mac or Windows, the link is on their website’s main page. It’s pretty straightforward after that, you just copy and paste the text.  

Featured Image: René Magritte, Golconda (Golconde), 1953. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 39 1/2 in. (80 × 100.3 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. © 2017 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Hi, this is Laura!

Hi! My name is Laura, I am a second-year History PhD student. My research interests include the Holocaust and the Soviet Union. In this class, I aim to learn how to use digital tools and improve my ability to navigate digital sources and platforms as I think it is important that historians keep up with the ever-evolving technology. My another goal is to produce a research paper that I would be able to submit for publication to an academic journal. This time however I hope to also enrich my projects by the methods learned in this class; as I believe that digitizing archival material in a safe and responsible manner can ensure its proper preservation and also make its use more egalitarian. Historians who belong to marginalized groups do not always have the privilege of traveling in order to conduct research, and the digitization of sources certainly helps. Having access to the Internet allowed me to use digitized archives, and that opportunity has tremendously helped my academic and professional career. I am also enthused by the format and structure of the course, it is unlike any other History class I had before.

P.S. To save everyone time, and if you prefer: books by Flanagan, Gitelman, Jockers, Kirschenbaum, Rinehart are available to AU students in the ebook format.