Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, using the Internet has been adopted by large numbers around the world for food shopping, working from home and even consultations with one’s doctor or psychologist. Using social networks and being involved from home, however, has not been regarded as legitimate by Holocaust museums, memorial sites and other institutions out of fear that it would “commercialize” or even distort legitimate Holocaust memory. Instead, they preferred that preferred people attend ceremonies in person.
The anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Usually there are hundreds of events around the globe, especially in Israel and Europe, to remember International Holocaust Remembrance Day – the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – on January 27 (Wednesday). But under lockdown, these institutions have had to change their outlook. Severe restrictions on public life in many countries following the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic specifically affected cultural institutions such as theaters, cinemas, and museums. Physical sites had to close their doors to visitors and cancel public events, and travel restrictions made it impossible to visit tourist attractions. As one of the first to shut to the public, the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial closed on March 12 2020. Two days later, former concentration camp sites in Germany were forced to conduct the same action. On March 15, Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem – shut its museum to visitors.
Even more challenging was the fact that 2020 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the discovery of various concentration camps and atrocity sites. For that reason, many memorials had planned large-scale commemoration events on-site. For these occasions they had especially invited survivors and their families, which for many was perhaps their last chance to visit the sites of traumatic suffering and articulate their living memories. In addition, the peak of the shutdown also coincided with the Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
Online events have been legitimized
Last year, Yad Vashem prerecorded the annual Yom HaShoah ceremony and broadcasted it on national television, YouTube, and on Facebook. Memorial sites such as Flossenbürg in Bavaria uploaded video speeches from survivors, politicians, and others to their website.
Now, online events have been legitimized. Holocaust memorials began experimenting with the potential of social media for Holocaust memory. These experiments finally accepted the ongoing generational change and reacted to significant previous shifts in media consumption that were already affecting Holocaust commemoration.
Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have examined the ways individual museums and memorial sites have adapted their programs over the past year. Most of them involve Zoom, Twitter and Facebook. “This global crisis created a far more accepting culture for the role digital media must play in remembrance,” said Dr. Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann and research student Tom Divon of the university’s communication and journalism department, who examined the many ways individual museums and memorial sites have adapted their programs over the past year.
Commemorating from a distance
As part of the research, they published in the journal Media, Culture and Society a paper entitled “Commemorating from a distance: the digital transformation of Holocaust memory in times of COVID-19.” The study revealed how educators have successfully adapted new forms of Holocaust remembrance using social media tools, including a series of memory-related hashtags in use on Twitter and Facebook, “live” Instagram stories from memorial sites and concentration camps as well as Zoom discussions with Holocaust survivors across the globe.
Isolation during the lockdowns in Israel was especially hard for the remaining Holocaust survivors. Social distancing restrictions especially affect their ability to speak to audiences and their function as witnesses of the past events. The COVID-19 disease specifically harmed this generation as it disproportionally affects older people. In fact, the very first Israeli COVID-19 victim was Aryeh Even, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary.
Already since several decades commemorative culture of the Holocaust anticipates the prospective absence of the survivors’ presence. Researchers and educators tested a variety of media formats that preserve survivor testimonies for the future. Due to the particular situation of aged the witnesses in the pandemic, however, Holocaust commemoration in the wake of COVID-19 proves the absence of the survivors while they are still with us.
“The onset of this global crisis has impacted our lives in many ways and indeed Holocaust remembrance is no exception,” Ebbrecht-Hartman said. “While we have already been experiencing a transition where forms of social media and digital content have been increasingly recognized as legitimate expressions of commemoration, the severe restrictions of Corona both accelerated this process but also created a far more accepting culture for the role these media must play.”
Museum curators have to adapt content
Ongoing research involves the compilation of data and feedback from 32 Holocaust museums and monuments in nine different countries with the goal of better understanding which digital platforms have been used most effectively and were best received. The research has so far indicated that educators and museum curators have to adapt content to be better absorbed via digital means and in so doing provided the motivation for relevant audiences to log on.
Certain museums have opened Instagram and even TikTok accounts, produced online “digital challenges” while others have invested in virtual tours of their facilities. Most of these efforts express a desire by Holocaust educators to make the history more relevant and accessible to the younger generations who are known to be less emotionally attached to the subject matter.
Invited to read the names of Holocaust victims
Among the initiatives described were the broadcast by Yad Vashem of its annual commemoration via YouTube in addition to the traditional local TV format. The museum also initiated a campaign where online users were invited to read the names of Holocaust victims and then upload them to social media accounts with relevant hashtags.
In a similar approach, the directors of the monument site at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria encouraged the public to upload and share pictures or drawings relating to the liberation of the camp with the hashtag #Liberation1945. The monument later released a video clip compiling the images that were uploaded.
Ebbrecht-Hartmann concluded: “Even while we are encouraged by these efforts, we know that the physical spaces where the Holocaust occurred will always remain sacred memorial sites. We anticipate that future commemoration will be a continuation of physical trips to these sites but the historic impact of Corona has introduced a new reality whereby digital memorials and online efforts can be an integral component of Holocaust remembrance.”