Opinion: Will the Holocaust on Instagram teach remembrance?

An Israeli tech executive and his daughter sought to depict the life of Eva Heyman to teach Instagram users about the Holocaust.

By Jonathan Tobin, JNS.org

To say that the impact of social media on society and popular culture has not been entirely beneficial is the understatement of the 21st century. Our politics has been further embittered by the isolation brought on by the social-media bubbles in which many of us live.

Perhaps even more important is that this has also contributed to the isolation of individuals and the breakdown of a sense of real community in which people actually speak to and interact daily with their friends and neighbors. Instead, much of humanity is now making do with virtual lives and virtual friends with little real connection to the actual world around them.

Too many of us are not living in the moment because we’re too busy posting or looking at the posts of others in the endless search for “Instagrammable” pictures to share with your followers.

In many ways, we’d probably all be better off without it. But for all of its faults, social media — like television and radio in other generations that were also blasted for the deleterious effect those mediums had on society and culture — is only as good or bad as the material we get from it.

And if most of the populations of developed countries are spending much of their lives on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, then perhaps we shouldn’t snicker or roll our eyes when attempts are made to use them for higher purposes than cat videos or pictures of puppies.

Eva’s Stories

That’s the context for the rollout of “Eva’s Stories,” an effort to use Instagram to help educate the next generation about the Holocaust. The account is the project of Mati Kochavi, an Israeli tech executive and his daughter, Maya, who sought to use the life of Eva Heyman to teach Instagram users about the Holocaust. Heyman, a 13-year-old Hungarian Jewish girl who kept a diary for three months in 1944 before she was deported to Auschwitz in May 1944, died there five months later.

What the Kochavis have done is to try to tell the story told in the diary that was published 50 years ago in 70 brief Instagram stories that followers of the account can click on. The conceit of the project is to have Eva speak of her life as if she were contemporary teenager recording video on her smartphone and posting them to her Instagram.

In that way, viewers are given a sense of her as a recognizable teenager with a family, friends, problems, hopes and dreams who has everything taken from her by the Nazis and their collaborators. The German invasion, her forced relocation to a ghetto, and the hardships and humiliations she suffered before being sent to her death are all documented in the videos.

The quality of the production, which was shot in Ukraine at what Kochavi says was a cost of $5 million, is variable at best. Those looking for high art or deep thought must look elsewhere. But the style in which it is shot is indicative of what the producers think young Instagram users are used to when they click on the stories of those they follow on the app. The primary target audience is young Israelis, and the account has been promoted on billboards around the Jewish state.

No work that puts a smartphone into the hands of someone in the 1940s can claim any sort of authenticity. And the snark that it has inspired among some of those who have seen it, such as quips in which followers wonder where and how Eva is keeping her phone charged, is cringe-inducing. Since it lacks the sort of context or sober approach that we are used to in serious works about the Holocaust, the Kochavis can be accused of dumbing this history down for their audience. That’s bad enough for discussing any historical topic, though it’s hardly surprising that this approach has generated bitter criticism when applied to something that is as sacred as the memory of the Shoah.

But the talk of bad taste and contempt for the intelligence of its audience doesn’t entirely ring true.

All depictions of the Holocaust are bound to fail on some level, no matter how high-toned or brilliant the presentation. The Shoah is so dark and awful that it is, by definition, unfathomable and incapable of being translated into the familiar story arcs of film and television, let alone an Instagram story.

Yet the tut-tutting about the taste used in telling Eva’s stories remains off the mark. Efforts to turn the story of Anne Frank — whose diary encompasses a longer period, as well as the compelling story of a family in hiding — have been equally problematic, especially with regard to the popular play adaptation that in its original version drained Anne’s life of Jewish content in a futile and ill-advised effort to make her a more universal character.

With few survivors left alive and a rising tide of anti-Semitism sweeping across the globe from both the left and the right, the Kochavis are correct to think that this is indeed the moment when we should be using every tool available to teach about the Holocaust and Jew-hatred. If the eyes of the young and the old are glued to their phones, then attempts to use this medium to connect them to what happened in the Shoah are exactly what are needed.

The Kochavis’ videos are pedestrian in their awkward attempts to make today’s kids think of Eva as just another girl talking into her phone. But they are a genuine effort to reach out to a different generation at a time when Holocaust education is needed more than ever.

As a gateway to more serious study of the Holocaust, youngsters could do far worse than clicking on the eva.stories account. In their own way, they are an appropriate tribute to Eva and the rest of the Six Million who perished … and whose memory must never be forgotten.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate.