In October 2021, a woman left social media users outraged when she was seen taking modelesque photos at a Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, wearing a sports bra and leggings.
The unidentified blonde, believed to be a German influencer, was recorded posing for a photographer while sitting atop one of the 2,711 concrete slabs that make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Footage of the incident was shared on TikTok by the account Influencers in the Wild (@influencersinthewild), which is known for calling out influencers caught making content in a questionable manner, with the caption, “Don’t do this, ever.”
“I’m horrified beyond words,” a bystander can be heard saying in the video, which has since racked up over 24 million views, along with thousands of comments expressing disgust with the woman’s behavior.
“She’s not ‘just taking a picture,’” one user wrote. “She’s MODELING. At the HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL.”
“Not only is this disrespectful… it’s just so tasteless…” commented another.
Some viewers defended the model, pointing to a 2017 interview with Peter Eisenman, the New York architect who designed the Berlin memorial. He rebuked a project called “Yolocaust” meant to mock visitors for taking jubilant selfies at such reflective sites.
“People have been jumping around on those [concrete slabs] forever,” he told the BBC at the time. “They’ve been sunbathing, they’ve been having lunch there, and I think that’s fine.”
Viewers, however, still took issue with the manner in which the woman was posing. Some likened her body language to a model at a provocative fashion shoot rather than a tourist who wanted to remember their visit to the Holocaust memorial site.
While the desire for young people to post about the Holocaust online is present, there is clear discomfort with the manner in which some choose to do so.
These growing pains and awkward posts make sense, since social media is a relatively new frontier that is constantly evolving.
But in order to encourage young people to engage with Holocaust education and remembrance online, there must be some boundaries on what type of content is and isn’t appropriate to share in relation to one of humanity’s darkest times.
“We still have not learned enough”
Jan. 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day in which it is important for everyone to stop and commemorate the 6 million Jewish people who were killed at the hands of the Nazi party.
Understanding how and why the Holocaust occurred can, as UNESCO explains, “inform broader understandings of mass violence globally” and promote the value of human rights and ethics.
Dr. Christine Berberich, a professor at the University of Portsmouth and an expert in Holocaust studies, told In The Know that youth education on the Holocaust is absolutely paramount at this moment in time, especially amid a global surge in anti-Semitic attacks.
“We must all know not just about the actual Holocaust, but especially about what led to it, the ideology behind it and how easy it can be to be drawn into that,” she said. “We always say ‘if we learn from the past we can prevent it in the future.’ But genocides have happened since the Holocaust, which suggests that we still have not learned enough.”
Dr. Berberich, who edited the trans-disciplinary collection Trauma & Memory: The Holocaust in Contemporary Culture, explained that apathy has historically played a major role in mass genocides.
“People of all ages need to understand that the Holocaust was not just committed by Hitler and other Nazi leaders, but by tens of thousands of others who willingly went along with it, and hundreds of thousands who turned a blind eye,” she said.
By making young people aware of both the dangers of turning a blind eye and the horrific situations passivity can lead to, Dr. Berberich believes we can bring about “more resistance to ideology, demagoguery and populism” in the future.
“Social media has changed the landscape of Holocaust remembrance”
In an article written by researchers Dr. Gemma Commane and Rebekah Potton, which was featured in Dr. Berberich’s anthology, the role of social media in Holocaust education amongst younger generations is stressed as being “of great importance.”
The pair emphasizes the necessity for educators to meet young people where they are — i.e., online — in order to educate them about such history.
“Young people are contributing considerably to Holocaust remembrance on platforms like Instagram, so it is important for educators, museums, and academics alike to recognize their contribution, but also to think of ways to use digital platforms to engage young people to continue to care about the past,” the article notes.
Dr. Berberich echoed that social media’s impact on Holocaust studies has been undeniably immense, both positively and negatively.
“I think that social media has changed the landscape of Holocaust remembrance quite drastically, in both a good and a bad way,” she explained.
Among the good aspects, Berberich considers the active social media accounts run by major Holocaust commemorative sites, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, which has over 1.2 million followers on Twitter and frenquently posts educational material.
“[These accounts] are vital, in particular, to reach a younger audience,” she explained.
Of course, there are also negatives to social media’s growing involvement in Holocaust discourse — mainly, as Berberich explains, that some posts “can be unfiltered” and lead to the spreading of “misinformation or fake news.”
“That, of course, is incredibly problematic,” she added.
“The Holocaust is becoming a distant memory”
Indeed, Holocaust misinformation has become such a severe issue over the last few years that on Jan. 20, the United Nations formally condemned denial and distortion of the mass genocide, The New York Times reported.
While introducing the resolution, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. and a grandson of Holocaust victims, said that with the help of social media, “Holocaust denial has spread like a cancer.”
In his remarks, Erdan also noted that although the Holocaust is a well-documented, indisputable historic event, “we now live in an era in which fiction is now becoming fact and the Holocaust is becoming a distant memory.”
One way to combat the next generation’s detachment from the Holocaust is to ensure that young people feel engaged in education and discourse on the atrocity. Enter, social media.
Relegating Holocaust education to the classroom is a surefire way to leave young people feeling distant from and, even worse, apathetic about an event that happened only 77 years ago.
It stands to reason that most people who take the time to visit Holocaust memorials and take photos — even questionable ones, like model shots and smiling selfies — have good intentions, even if they’re still missing the mark.
And while backlash surrounding inappropriate photos at memorials is nothing new, the debate has grown more and more nuanced over the years as the need to educate young people about the Holocaust has grown.
If we want more young people to engage in Holocaust remembrance, it’s counterproductive to call out well-intentioned folks for their online follies and not offer alternative options on how to properly spread awareness.
So, perhaps we need to change the conversation from “is it appropriate to take photos at Holocaust memorials?” to “in what manner is it most appropriate to take photos at Holocaust memorials?”
“You’re making it about yourself”
One of the biggest ways travelers have missed the mark is by treating Holocaust memorial locations, as one videographer put it, like “amusement parks.”
Photos of tourists balancing on the train tracks at Auschwitz, which led over 1 million people to their deaths, became so common that in 2019, the museum tweeted a plea for visitors to please exhibit a modicum of respect.
“When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed,” the tweet stated. “Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths.”
Christian Barbour, a 17-year-old high school student and TikToker who uses his platform to educate others about the Holocaust, recently shared some advice on how to avoid becoming the subject of a viral tweet or TikTok video while visiting memorials and other historic sites, like former concentration camps.
“People’s opinions vary on whether you should take photos with you in them or not [at these sites] because that really isn’t the purpose of why you’re going there,” he said. “It’s kind of like taking a selfie with the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s kind of disrespectful. In that moment, you’re making it about yourself and not the memorial itself.”
As Barbour also points out, a lot of Holocaust museums and monuments actually do encourage photography.
In a statement to In The Know, a spokesperson for The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe confirmed that “photography is not prohibited according to our visitor regulations,” noting the architect’s desire to keep the practice free and unregulated.
Still, Barbour told In The Know that it’s best to try and maintain a respectful and solemn decorum while taking and sharing photos of Holocaust memorials online.
He recommends not centering yourself in the post, as selfies are apt to do, and instead, making education, awareness and scenery the focal point.
“When someone is taking photos when visiting a Holocaust Memorial, based on people that I have talked to, you should refrain from selfies, smiling and posing, especially at Auschwitz in front of the Arbeit Macht Frei, and refrain from taking pictures with personal belongings [of Holocaust victims] in any museum that you visit,” Barbour explained.
“Refrain from smiling and acting happy because this is a place of reverence,” he added of former concentration camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. “It’s a mass grave, everywhere you step is a mass grave.”
Dr. Berberich agreed, noting that posters should be extra aware of the captions and hashtags they use on posts discussing the Holocaust.
“I feel very ambivalent about taking photos at those sites in the first place, I have to admit,” she told In The Know. “If they are taken for educational purposes, fine. But what is the point of taking a selfie in a concentration camp? It is quite troubling, especially the hashtags people then use to go with their images.”
“The Holocaust is, of course, still within living memory,” she added. “We mustn’t forget that it is such a sensitive topic for so many.”
To try and combat this pervasive disrespectful behavior, Barbour has focused his efforts on attempting to establish an honor guard at Auschwitz.
“I started a petition that became the basis for my TikTok page and now has about 12,000 signatures over the last year and has gained support from Holocaust survivors on social media, such as Tova Friedman,” he told In The Know. “She was a child at the time of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. I also have had the opportunity to speak with members of the Polish government to start the process of having this implemented, and my followers have been much help, and I appreciate them.”
“Lack of knowledge leads to more and more misinformation”
It makes sense to encourage Holocaust posts on the platforms where young people spend a majority of their time discussing just about everything imaginable. This will, of course, involve photo and video sharing, the two main elements of most modern social media apps.
By going beyond condemning those who get their Holocaust posts wrong and actually educating them about the right way to engage with Holocaust remembrance online, experts have a major opportunity to generate awareness and endow young people with a greater emotional understanding of what led to this incomprehensible atrocity.
This is a key component in not only preventing future mass genocides but also combating the pervasive false narratives about the Holocaust that are increasingly circulated online.
“Lack of knowledge leads to more and more misinformation that then spreads on social media,” Dr. Berberich said. “Given that there are such few filters on social media, it is important that posts come from an informed background, or that, alternatively, misinformation is challenged.”
“’The ethics of representation’ should always be at the forefront of everybody’s mind when posting about the Holocaust,” she added.
In The Know has reached out to the Auschwitz Museum for comment.
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