Instead of worrying about whether projects such as these are “dumbing down” children, perhaps it is finally time for Holocaust educators to meet them where they are: their mobile phones.
A 2018 article in Wired Magazine stated that 54% of teens worried they were addicted to their phones. A Daily Mail article worried that the rise in mobile phone use would lead to the “destruction of the very fabric of society.”
And with Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum often releasing statements about visitors balancing on the iconic railway tracks that transported millions of people to their deaths for selfies, combining mobile phones, social media and Holocaust education seems, at the most basic level, to be completely tone deaf.
Since mobile phones have become a staple in our lives, those who work in Holocaust education and with Holocaust memory have grappled with how to marry the two in a meaningful way. Conferences are held each year on the topic of technology, education and memory with leading scholars and museums.
The organization I work with, who takes teenagers from the around the UK to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, encourages teens to take photos on their phones, but ultimately live in the moment.
Holocaust memorial sites have flirted with using mobile technology within their exhibits. Some have optional apps you can download to enrich your knowledge, while cities such as Amsterdam have, in the past, released apps with maps of places pertinent to Anne Frank’s life.
But not one has dared to go so boldy as Eva.Stories, which integrated Holocaust memory into Instagram. And not with photos of the camps as they are now, or victims, but with a dramatized story.
For years, Holocaust educators have wrestled how to effectively educate young people. We receive disturbing statistics like the those conducted by Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which states that one in five people in the UK think less than 2 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Other surveys show many people don’t even know what the Holocaust was.
With those who actually remembered the Holocaust aging and passing on, there never has been such fervor to pass their stories down, especially in the face of statistics that demonstrate a staunch lack of awareness.
But we often wonder, how do we get young people to care? At the same time, we are often eschewing the use of the technology they surround themselves with. The Holocaust is, in some ways, holy and cannot be intermixed with social media.
This is why Eva.Stories, with over 120 million views a day after its premiere, is so effective. It gets young people to care.
Created by father and daughter team, Mati and Maya Kochavi, the project aimed to tell the story of 13-year-old Hungarian Holocaust victim, Eva Heyman, in the last few months of her life. The pair used Instagram Stories as their medium of distribution.
It was this platform that drew such ire in the first place.
Just as young people are criticized for being on their phone too often, the idea that a serious subject could not be conveyed through a “superficial medium” was one of the early consensuses of the project.
It’s easy to see the hesitation. Anyone who visits the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum can routinely observe visitors taking selfies, posing for photos under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz I or having their photo made in the memorial itself. While the museum doesn’t expressly forbid this, the behavior is frowned upon.
Yuul Mendelson, a Hebrew language columnist for Haaretz, stated that Eva.Stories was a slippery slope between Instagram stories and selfies at Auschwitz.
Indeed, the story drew anger from social media users who wondered how Eva would charge her iPhone during electricity shortages or who believed a smartphone would take away from the story.
On May 1, at 4pm Israeli time, the tale unfolded with little-known British actress Mia Quiney in the titular role. The Kovachis went with a cast of unknown actors for the story, arguably making it even more effective.
While many fretted that the work would come off as insincere, over the next several hours, over 100 million users became transfixed on the story of a 13-year-old Hungarian girl as she shared her life via Instagram. And while Eva used emojis and Instagram polls, they somehow felt right for the story.
The cast wasn’t anachronistically using phones, as many worried. Instead, Eva doesn’t even acknowledge that she is using a smartphone or Instagram. The modern trappings that so many worried would hinder the story pushed it forward. The social media stories, instead, served as her diary. Eva’s diary did, indeed, exist and has been published, but never widely translated.
What resulted was a beautiful story about a young girl like any young girl we all know. But herlight was extinguished far too soon at Birkenau at the tender age of 13.
Eva.Stories tastefully ended on the cattle train from home her home in Nagyvarad to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she ultimately perished.
While naysayers still exist, some going so far as to call it “gimmicky,” the story attracted the attention and accolades of the Israeli Prime Minister, the United States White House and even famous comedian and third generation survivor, Sarah Silverman.
Instead of hindering Eva’s journey, utilizing social media brought an entirely new angle to it.
As a writer, I have been told by those in the publishing industry not to write about the Holocaust, because there is nothing new to say about it. But this project proves just the opposite, there is still everything to say about it. Perhaps these things left to say could be done so through a tool we’re still reticent to use.
“…I can’t help but think this is what it would be like if this happened today. It brings it home in a jarring sort of way,” social media user, Roneet Rahamim, commented on the piece.
Facebook user, Sabrina Perl, concurred with Rahamim’s statement, “I think it made her story relatable to a new generation that finds it hard to relate to the Holocaust. The survivors are dying out. This is an amazing way to make the experience relatable, fresh and current.”
Others commented that had social media been invented during World War II, Anne Frank and other preteens and teens would have been documenting their struggles in a similar way.
While Holocaust education strives to educate about the perils of evil and the millions who died in the genocide, one thing always remains clear: that we want the next generation to understand these are individual stories. Telling young people that six million people died 75 years ago is incredibly difficult to grasp. Likewise, it is a difficult concept for grown adults to comprehend.
Seeing the material stolen goods at Auschwitz’s museum is jarring, but it isn’t enough to disentangle the single victim from the masses, the pair of shoes or pair of glasses from the pile of thousands of others that sit on display.
We speak often of the concept of six million means one plus one plus one plus one and so on, and are frustrated when we find that many teens aren’t very interested in learning about these individuals who seem to have lived so long ago and so far away.
The Eva.Stories Instagram page and its positive reception, despite the initial doubt, teaches us one thing: if we wish to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, we must meet youth where they are. In doing so, we cannot continue to be reticent to new technology, fearing that it will somehow corrupt their minds or “dumb down” history. Instead, we must embrace it for what it is without judgement.
Anne Frank dreamed of being a famous writer. Her dream came true with the help of her father, a decade after her death.
Eva Heyman dreamed of becoming a famous photojournalist. Her dream came true almost 75 years after her death, and using the medium of Instagram feels even more authentic to what she had wanted out of life: to silently capture it.
It is by meeting young people where they are that we learn to not only find more stories in the trove of the millions that are still untold, but make them heard. In such an era where a new generation becomes the bearers of witness, we can no longer be afraid of utilizing all available mediums of technology and potentially breaking taboos.
Eva.Stories may have just helped usher Holocaust education, as well as remembrance, into a new era.