Shift Society Retweet and remember: digital approaches to the Holocaust

Visitors with audio guides at Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.
Visitors with audio guides at Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. | Photo (detail): NIR ELIAS © picture alliance / REUTERS

How does our digital age shape the memory of the Holocaust? Survivor Abba Naor, German scholar Ernst Hüttl, press officer of the Auschwitz Memorial Pawel Sawicki and student Emely Fuchs talk about experiences, opportunities and risks.

By Elisa Jochum


At the round-table discussion

​Dear all, let us open with this question: what experiences have you had in the field of digital remembrance in particular?

Ernst Hüttl:
Working at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, I’m a member of a project group that is currently developing two programmes on digital remembrance. One of them, LediZ (Learning with Digital Testimonies) is creating interactive, three-dimensional German language testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Mr Naor took part in this project. The 3-D testimony is very similar to how you would imagine a hologram to work (an actual holographic technology, which would allow visitors to change their perspective on the projection and to move around it, does not yet exist outside of the spaces of virtual reality) The other project in which I’m involved – in the background – is building an app giving you a guided tour of the university of Munich, where the resistance fighters of the White Rose were active.
The collage shows Abba Noar sitting in an armchair and the same scene, this time in the 3-D presentation. Abba Naor's work with LediZ; Photos (details): © Bright White Ltd Abba Naor:
I look a little differently at testimonies because I don’t have to remind myself or listen again. I haven’t forgotten. I’m one of the people who had to go through it all quite actively – unfortunately. That’s the difference between me and the others taking part in this discussion. I suppose they’re a few years younger than I am. I feel, this reconfirms that I should explain what it was like. How did people live at the time? After all, some people just happened to survive.

Emely Fuchs:
I’m really happy to join you in this conversation. I’m currently seventeen years old, turning eighteen in a few months. I participate in a project group on remembrance at my school, the Geschwister-Scholl-Gymnasium Lebach.

Pawel Sawicki:
I work at the Auschwitz Memorial where we have, first of all, the authentic site and people visiting it. This is far from being digital because the authenticity is the key. More than two million visitors come to the memorial every year, but, at some point, we understood that plenty of people would not be able to visit in person. One resulting programme in which I took part was our virtual tour on the website. It doesn’t show the exhibitions but emphasises the site and its history. We complemented these digital images with educational materials: with historical explanations and testimonies.
 
From the very beginning of my work at the memorial, I have been involved in our social media outreach, which is again a distinct element of our mission, because we engage here with the public, not only with our visitors.
 
Not to forget a third digital pathway at the Auschwitz Memorial: the so-called digital repository. Archivists go through each document we have, digitize it and seek to find information about the identity of every single person mentioned in the materials, whether this mention is a name, a camp number, a birthday or any other personal detail.

Memory in 3-D

Let us talk about 3-D and VR in the field of remembrance. The 3-D testimonies LediZ provides are among these approaches. The USC Shoah Foundation is also very active in this area. They have created virtual and interactive testimonies with Holocaust survivors and made a virtual-reality film through which viewers can accompany survivor Pinchas Gutter as he returns to the Majdanek concentration camp. What opportunities for remembering do 3-D and virtual-reality technologies open up? Do you see potential risks, too? Or: which ethical questions do you have to take into account?

Pawel Sawicki:
Companies are constantly approaching the Auschwitz Memorial to create an additional virtual tour that visitors could take by walking across the site with a device. We decline these offers. When people visit Auschwitz, they should not spend their time looking at a screen. They should see the site. The guides and exhibition should merely aid them in understanding its authenticity. As an exception, we installed QR-Codes at several places, allowing you to listen to survivors’ voices as they speak about these particular locations.
 
Right now, we have the honour of meeting a Holocaust survivor, Mr Naor, but such conversations will not be possible anymore in twenty years. All institutions face the challenge to collect as many testimonies as possible. Then, we are up against the second challenge of how to use these testimonies.

Pawel Sawicki:
 


Emely Fuchs:
I agree with Mr Sawicki on many points. Guides or experts should supervise virtual-reality applications and give advice. But it is highly important to preserve the memories and emotions of Holocaust survivors because, I think, it’s the only way to touch people in the present day. The young generation is losing their emotional connection to these times. When young people can see survivors thanks to VR or other means of recording, they perceive them as persons and not as mere stories. They are more likely to connect with them. Here, VR is promising.

Ernst Hüttl:
Audio wird geladen

Abba Naor:
Today, we’re seeing things we couldn’t even have imagined before: that seventy-five years after the war, a new anti-Semitism has come to life. So you may talk about it, you may get a little angry again. This is why I always say to other Jewish people: don’t worry. They won’t do without us because they always need somebody to hate. And we’re still here. It’s important – especially nowadays, especially for young people – that these last survivors continue to tell their stories first-hand.
 
I speak at between eighty and ninety schools a year in Bavaria. I get more and more requests, although at first teachers weren’t very enthusiastic about a Holocaust witness coming to tell his story. A lot has changed since then. Schools are more open-minded, so are teachers. Our time is nearly up. As long as there are still survivors left, we must make the most of the time remaining. You can write plenty of books, you can tell third-hand stories, but that’s not the same thing. Ours is a living form of storytelling. I can tell how different it is by the reactions of the students and teachers and their questions.
 
I hope visitors to the LediZ project will get authentic answers to their questions, too. After all, there’s a world of difference between former prisoners and historians. Sometimes you get the feeling that historians want to get rid of you as quickly as possible so they can have their say.

Ernst Hüttl:

(Social) media and the Holocaust

Do you think that social media provide an appropriate framework for remembering the Holocaust? Is one of these platforms particularly valuable? In turn, are there networks that cannot do justice to remembrance?

Abba Naor:
I’d like to say something about the media in general. At every school I go to, a journalist is present as well. Do you think they write what they’ve heard? They write exactly what they want to write. You usually won’t find the important points in the newspaper afterward. You see a story and a picture: I was there. The journalist was there. Let’s take books, for example, too. There are so many about the Holocaust. Can you walk into a bookshop in Germany today and find a book by a Holocaust survivor? You have to order a copy, and it takes a few weeks to get it. I always say: if I’d been a comedian, my books would probably be displayed in the shop window. I can’t say that the media and people involved in them show much interest.

Emely Fuchs:
When it comes to social media, I do think that they have the potential to help the process of remembrance. While there is always the risk that someone misuses social media, they represent the easiest way to reach younger generations. Most young people today don’t read newspapers or watch the news on TV. They are on their phones or other portable devices all day long.

Pawel Sawicki:
My older colleagues told me that, at the time, there had been a debate about whether the Auschwitz Memorial should have a website at all. Today this question appears to be absurd. We also had this debate when we started using Facebook in 2009, as the first of our social-media outlets. I do believe that you can use social media to transfer memory and to commemorate. Some platforms are better for livestreams, others for interaction or imagery. Different networks allow you to add more or less text. We have to learn this language but there is no escape from social media. As we heard from Frau Fuchs, the world of communication is there, and this not only for young people. We should be aware of limitations, vulnerabilities and challenges, yet if someone searches for information from the Auschwitz Memorial, we should be there. When I see that, in the month of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, our tweets received almost 250 million impressions, I know that some Twitter users leave it at reading a post, but this tweet can lead others to asking more questions.

Pawel Sawicki:
Facebook post by Pawel Sawicki reading: “Holocaust denial, hate speech – whenever I see an anti-Semitic comment under our social media posts –, I remove it, block and report the author; just as at the physical memorial where I would ask a disrespectful person to leave. Interestingly, we are speaking about a very limited number of people. Most users want to be part of this community, to get engaged, to learn – and they themselves guard this virtual sphere. As soon as they see a problematic post, they reach out to us. We see here the truly social part of social media.” © Goethe Institut
Find the Facebook post here

Hashtag Auschwitz?

Twitter is one of the social-media networks permitting hashtags. They act as digital keywords making a topic, which has been equipped with such a tag, searchable on the platform. This principle raises two questions.
 
First, what are your views on hashtags such as #Auschwitz? Does the tag “instrumentalise” the term in the service of searchability, render it a means to an end, and is this appropriate? In January 2020, a few days before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Twitter displayed “Trends for you” in its right-hand column, and below “Trends in Germany: #Auschwitz”. Do you perceive this representation as a legitimate tool for raising public awareness? Or does an algorithm here abbreviate the conversation in an automated fashion to few, and perhaps too few, keywords?
 
Second, anti-Semites and neo-Nazis might use these hashtags as well. Unless Twitter has managed to detect those abusive tweets, it would show them next to posts by memorials and survivors, without any differentiation. For readers, the platform would technically and visually display the tweets on an equal footing. What are the ethical implications for future usage? Putting it a deliberately provocative way: should one refrain from turning to the abused hashtags in the future? Or isn’t it that violations render it rather more important to apply these hashtags in order to counter the abuses? To claim back the power over the meanings and contexts of these words?


Ernst Hüttl:

Ernst Hüttl:
You also mentioned that it popped up as a “trend”. It’s irritating for Auschwitz to be called that, but users probably take it to mean that Auschwitz is currently a subject of discussion. Is a word being instrumentalised here? I’d say this is how language works. Ultimately, language always functionalises. We produce sounds that denote concepts. As I said before, what’s more important is what the authors say in their posts with this hashtag.

Pawel Sawicki:
I agree. When my Twitter account tells me that Auschwitz is a trending hashtag in Germany or in Poland, I take it as a sign that something is going on – that there is a public debate. We can lead a similar discussion as to whether you should “like” the Auschwitz Memorial or whether to put a heart under our posts. Social media were not exclusively created for this difficult story. We simply need to understand the meanings of respective features and actions. So, for us, “like” means “I remember”; a hashtag is a way in which people can gather information and in which we can track how memory is spreading across the virtual world – how the public remembers. I don’t see instrumentalisations or disrespect. If you want to be disrespectful, if you want to instrumentalise, then you will do it – whether you have this specific tool or not.

Abba Naor:
I don’t really have much to say about this subject. I’m a simple man. I just happen to be here because there’s still a survivor. My university was the camp. I don’t want to get too involved in these debates. I can only be involved in terms of my past experiences and my current activities and draw respective conclusions. Young people should deal with the other stuff. I’m glad the next generation is engaging with it at all. It wasn’t like that in the beginning, and the fewer survivors there are – there are almost none left – the more historians deal with these things. And they reach an increasingly wide public. They see it as part of history. I can’t do that. For me, it all began in a completely different way. It is not part of history; it is a part of what people have experienced.

Emely Fuchs:
With regard to digital keywords, I’d like to add that, especially when they pop up as trends, they can reach people who’ve never engaged with these subjects before. Or they serve as reminders to people who weren’t thinking about them at the moment. Maybe they think to themselves, “I really ought to look into this”. That’s why hashtags are quite important.

Ernst Hüttl:
As for the second question about the use of hashtags by neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, I’m not sure I have a conclusive answer. From a linguistic point of view, once again: meaning depends on use. With hashtags like #Auschwitz or #Holocaust, we can’t just say: we’re going to give up this term or language, it belongs to the Nazis now. But we would have to check: is a hashtag intrinsically or in its origin problematic? I’m thinking of #AllLivesMatter, for instance, which arose as a counter-movement to #BlackLivesMatter. In that case you can say: this hashtag has been corrupted at the moment of its emergence, I don’t want to use it.

Pawel Sawicki:
First of all, we cannot allow anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and other hateful people to control the way we work. If we fail on this, if we say that we are not going to talk because the anti-Semites and neo-Nazis could jump in, then our work doesn’t mean too much. It is not appropriate to debate, for instance, with Holocaust deniers because we would put them on an equal footing with the institution. Instead, we should provide as much content as possible. I would like to point to another challenging aspect …

Pawel Sawicki: 
Pawel Sawicki:
I can block and report someone, but I cannot remove a person from Twitter or Facebook. The platforms can. This is a bigger issue. The companies’ language has been changing for several years. On the outset, they rejected any responsibility for people’s writing but have now shifted to acknowledging that their networks may be used to manipulate others and to publish fake news. Additionally, the European, especially the German, approach to Holocaust deniers differs a lot from the American one – because of the First Amendment and the respective approach to free speech. And the social-media headquarters are mostly based in the U.S.

Abba Naor:
As for anti-Semitism, I have to say it’s not my problem at all, it’s the anti-Semites’ problem. They still have to look at us. They have to live with this hatred. Is it easy to live with hatred? Not very likely.

Instagram and its “pretty pictures”

Instagram has developed a distinct set of connotations. People commonly associate the platform with “pretty pictures”. The widely held idea is that account holders stage their images and turn to filters to make them look perfect. Instagram is popular with influencers who frequently, while not always, advertise lifestyle choices and fashion. How do these connotations affect the ways one can put the platform in the service of remembering the Holocaust?
 
A famous controversial example of raising awareness on Instagram is Eva.Stories, a project from 2019 that pursues the question: “What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?” Eva Heyman was a Hungarian teenager who was murdered by the Nazis and left her diary. The Israeli father and daughter Mati and Maya Kochavi, who have lost family members in the Holocaust, have adapted Eva’s diary for Instagram. They have drawn on the characteristic style of the medium, for instance, emojis and selfie videos. The makers aim to reach young people by speaking to them in the very language these teenagers use – the language that defines young people’s daily lives and which is capable of touching them.


Emely Fuchs:
I hadn’t known about Eva.Stories until I prepared for this conversation. I’m not really active on Instagram but other people at my school hadn’t heard of it either. I have now looked at the account for Eva.Stories. It felt a bit strange to see a girl leaving emojis while being dressed like someone in the 1940s. I also read a lot of the comments underneath and many young people wrote that they felt really connected to her in a way they didn’t to history before, even though they had already read books at school such as the diary of Anne Frank.  

Ernst Hüttl:
I’d just add that Instagram doesn’t work like YouTube, which suggests videos to users randomly or according to an algorithm. In a feed, Instagram users receive posts from the people they follow. If some get nothing but pictures of models, starlets and influencers, that might say above all something about themselves.

Emely Fuchs:
This was one of the problems many people told me about: they don’t come into contact with Holocaust remembrance on Instagram unless they’re actively pursuing it themselves. So they don’t even notice initiatives like Eva.Stories.

Teenagers “in this messy online world”

Teenagers and young adults in a number of countries including Germany often show scant knowledge of the Holocaust, studies have found. What advice would you give to young people researching online and trying to learn – perhaps without much prior knowledge? How should they verify that they are dealing with reliable sources?

Pawel Sawicki:
I recommend that they start off by finding a place which provides reliable sources. It may be a nearby Holocaust museum or memorial, it may be a university. Many of these institutions have a presence online. You can email, you can access, you can begin to ask questions. This is one of the reasons why we are on social media and the Auschwitz Memorial was the first memorial to do so. We got the impression that people look for information about Auschwitz on social media and they may end up on disrespectful pages or such that do not yield accurate historical facts. We decided that we needed to be there to give guidance. We are there to help.
The broader issue – and a massive obligation – is how the educational system teaches young generations methods of researching in this messy online world where truth becomes a challenge.

Abba Naor:
I have a practical suggestion for today’s youth: buy my book, Ich sang für die SS (“I Sang for the SS”). They can learn a lot about the Holocaust from it. Just a little commercial there.

Emely Fuchs:
Audio wird geladen
 
Audio wird geladen

Abba Naor:
I wonder what it will be like when there are no survivors left. Has humanity really learned its lesson? Will people even talk about it anymore? As I spend a lot of time with children, I can say that they show a great deal of interest. What happens when they get older? I don’t know. For the time being, I see kids, especially girls, sitting in front of me and crying at my stories. Will they be like that when they grow up? When no one’s left to tell them what happened from personal experience? I always wonder: do the children even believe me? Does it sound credible when a survivor recounts what they went through in a camp? I don’t know. I’m not in the children’s shoes.

Emely Fuchs:
I find what Mr Naor has just said quite remarkable, that as a survivor he worries about how others perceive his story and whether they even believe it. I think it’s a very moving experience to hear the words of a survivor. Of course you believe them. You’re in a room with them, they’re real. They’re telling you in this very moment what they’ve been through. Recounting their story is very emotional for a survivor and you can sense these emotions in the encounter. So listeners get more engrossed in the story than if they were merely reading something about it.

Manipulated views

The issue of sources gives rise to the question of digital photography and videography: both technologies massively facilitate editing visual materials. Partly, this technique is deliberately drawn upon in the field of remembrance. Shahak Shapira’s Yolocaust has called out the practice of taking leisure-time snapshots at memorial sites for social media. He edited selfies, which people had taken at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, onto photographs of concentration camps. But anti-Semites can easily appropriate this method as well and manipulate imagery. One example is the photograph of Anne Frank that neo-Nazis in Germany – assumed to belong to the hooligan scene – inserted into the jerseys of opposing football teams; which again illustrates Mr Naor’s words on the current rise in anti-Semitism. What are your views and propositions for dealing with digital manipulation?

Pawel Sawicki:
Edited sources have been around throughout human history. We have to analyse whether a montage is disrespectful. This does not automatically hold true. People can use any technology properly but also improperly. We won’t change this. There will be people who hate. We must find ways to oppose, to educate, to fight. Let’s compare this to how you may avail yourself of a knife, such an old tool of humankind. You can cut bread with it and you can take the same knife to kill someone because you hate. A person’s motivation is crucial and you must arrest and sentence those people who use knives to attack. We are sometimes able to take legal actions against digital abuse but it’s not easy. We should have tools – legal tools, reporting tools – because I deeply believe that what haters and anti-Semites are doing is not only awful but also in many cases illegal. As to the selfies integrated in Mr Shapira’s project, I think, we should build people’s awareness of how to remember respectfully. Of course, it is complicated: the selfie is the visual language of our time and not every selfie is problematic.

Ernst Hüttl:

Toward an internet with a conscience

What would you want from the future of remembrance? What can remembrance with a conscience and, in this context, an internet with a conscience look like? Is there a project that you would like to see become reality in the future?

Abba Naor:
It’s important to me to pass this history on to the young generation. It should be a lesson in what can happen when you listen to false prophets. These days, false prophets are making all sorts of promises again. Today’s young people deserve a better life. Their ancestors had to pay dearly for the stupid things that were done back then.

Emely Fuchs:
Audio wird geladen

Pawel Sawicki:
Memory is crucial, awareness of why it has happened in the past is crucial. Additionally, we should start addressing the key question of human responsibility: we are bystanders of past events as we learn about history. We are also bystanders of present-day developments occurring in the name of the same hateful ideologies as eighty years ago. The new challenge for our institution is both: to accomplish the important task of teaching facts, dates and names and to connect this history to people’s responsibility today. Social media and new technologies constitute another set of tools we need to use. But the mission remains the same: commemorate the victims, teach their stories and convey the concrete relevance of this history for people today.

Abba Naor:
One last thing. Although I’m ninety-two years old – and in spite of everything I’ve been through – I have to say: life is a fine thing. We shouldn’t be careless with it. I’m talking above all to young people now. They should enjoy life and make the most of it.

Ernst Hüttl:
I quite agree with Mr Sawicki. The question is: what does this have to do with me? How can we bring out its contemporary relevance? How can we foster empathy, a change of perspective and self-reflection? At the same time, future remembrance shouldn’t give rise to thinking along black-and-white lines or to “othering”. It’s important to me personally that our work gives people the space to remember the past the way they feel is right for them. Not to impose a script on them. Therefore, I’m rather critical of the project Yolocaust, because it lays down relatively rigid rules of conduct and tries to enforce them through a form of public shaming, instead of asking questions about the reasons why. For example: why is taking selfies at the Holocaust Memorial offensive? I’d argue in favour of a more open-minded space that, perhaps, might even allow for mistakes.

Pawel Sawicki:
One thing in our discussion is clear: whatever tool we use, the words and stories of survivors are the essence of memory work. We still have survivors who can add more. We need people. When it comes to further pathways for the future, I think of the institutions all over the world that have been collecting countless pages and minutes of recordings for the last seventy-five years. We will keep using them forever. But this collection is still scattered. If there is a project I would dream of, it’s a digital compilation of databases giving researchers, educators and students everywhere access to more first-hand accounts. We should focus on working together and sharing. It will take time, but it’s worth it.

Ernst Hüttl:
I’m thinking about two specific projects. One is the hologram of Pinchas Gutter – it was actually recorded as a hologram, but the technology needed to render it as such doesn’t exist yet. It probably will at some point in the future. Then there’s a project by Maiken Umbach and Gary Mills, two professors at Nottingham University. I’m assuming they’ll carry it out in 2020 or 2021. Their project models historical – in other words, two-dimensional – photographs as three-dimensional spaces in which visitors can move around via VR. Many of these historical photographs were shot by perpetrators. Anyone looking at them in 2-D is forced to take the perpetrator’s perspective. The 3-D space, in which you can move around, permits a change of perspective. I can’t wait to see the results of this fantastic project.

Emely Fuchs:
I would make the case for involving schools more in digital remembrance and for schools themselves to strive for closer links to the digital world – because school is the place where young people are most confronted with the issue, as we’ve already pointed out. Classes could publish the results of their projects online, for example, and thus reach other teenagers – especially through students’ networks on social media platforms like Instagram.

Abba Naor:
I’ve been dealing with the Holocaust for the past twenty years, almost every day. I think I’ve already tried everything. I’ve met all kinds of children, sometimes groups of five hundred schoolchildren. Wherever they’re from, whatever their religion, young people take in this past with great respect. I find that truly reassuring. Humans can live with their fellow humans after all. We just need to find the right way of connecting with one another.
 


Realisation online: Elisa Jochum, Svenja Hoffmann, Elisabeth Gschwandtner, Linda Hügel, Miriam Steller