Treblinka. Dachau. Mauthausen. The worst of humankind was unleashed in these horrific places. Yet if you ask people under age 40 to name a concentration camp nearly half would give you a blank stare and could not name a single one. Not Buchenwald. Not Auschwitz.
That was among the unnerving results of a recent survey showing alarming ignorance among millennials and GenZers nourished by an internet-fed diet of Holocaust denial and distortion.
Almost half the respondents to the survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, had seen social media posts that denied or skewed Holocaust history. More than half said they had seen Nazi symbols online.
These disturbing findings make all the more welcome the spotlight being put on Holocaust denial on social media. This month Facebook promised to ban posts that deny the Holocaust. Twitter followed a week later, though Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey yesterday appeared to invalidate his own spokesman’s pledge when he told a congressional panel that Holocaust misinformation does not violate its policy.
Dorsey is misguided, and he and other social media powerhouses should set unequivocal policies banning the Holocaust denial tool of antisemites. Advocates for the truth should also embrace a bold approach to enlighten social media users acting out of ignorance, not hate.
Consider the young cosplayers who in recent months have posted TikTok videos of themselves dressed as victims of the gas chambers. Many wore the striped uniforms of the concentration camps and makeup to appear gaunt, the Bruno Mars pop song “Locked Out of Heaven” providing the soundtrack.
The videos, widely seen as mockery, were roundly condemned. The intent was sometimes unclear, however, making it shortsighted not to follow up and try to help them fine-tune their videos, clarify their aims and make them allies in fighting Holocaust distortion and bigotry.
Imagine the young cosplayers adding biographical details about the victims they portrayed. What if each held a sign reading #NeverAgain or #EndJewHatred? A coalition of teachers, parents and historians could guide cosplayers to deliver this more fitting content.
Cosplayers could research victim histories from online databases at Yad Vashem and other Holocaust centers. Yad Vashem’s database includes details about those killed, including photographs, submitted by surviving families. Some names are recited in memorial ceremonies. Powerful lesson plans on children’s diaries and other source material are on the Yad Vashem website.
The efforts of Israeli billionaire Mati Kochavi and his daughter, Maya, provide a model for using social media for what the elder Kochavi called “a new genre of memory.” The Kochavis drew close to a million followers within a day of going live on Instagram with short, captioned video clips, emojis and spoken accounts of a 13-year-old girl, Eva Heyman, murdered at Auschwitz. The girl’s diary is on the Yad Vashem site.
Along with its many viewers, however, the Instagram posts drew criticism in Israel that the online format was in poor taste for such a sensitive subject and that the platform did not provide enough context for the enormous scope of the Holocaust.
Holocaust centers could launch outreach campaigns to help remedy this issue and assure survivors checks and balances are in place that ensure accurate and dignified portrayals. These improvements in content and presentation, meanwhile, would enhance the authentic, interactive experiences millennials crave.
Even with the outside input, the video creators could gain autonomy in their posts. They can be empowered to be gatekeepers urging peers to respect those whose lives they interpret.
They can interview survivors and depict stories of heroism, not just victimhood. “We don’t only want to present Jews the way Nazis presented them,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, tells me.
Cosplayers can provide more context to shortform content platforms like Instagram and TikTok by using hashtags to direct viewers to social media promoting Holocaust studies or citing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, the emerging standard identifying when Holocaust references cross the line.
The more details the cosplayers provide, the harder it will be for haters to hijack content for their own odious aims.
“Once it’s up there in the viral universe, to the haters it doesn’t make a difference how it got there,” Cooper observes. “They will take it and use the viral bullhorns to their purposes, which may not match the original intent.”
Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum has helped guide young people to educate rather than offend. Two years ago he was called into a Minnesota high school to speak with students who had dressed up as Hitler and Eva Braun for a dance.
“I walked in and said, ‘I’m not here to lecture, I’m here to offer you a challenge,’” Berenbaum recounted. “‘This can be known as a school in which hatred was manifested, or it can be known as a school in which in the aftermath of hatred you decided to do something.'” The receptive students undertook two years of bias training.
Berenbaum, who oversaw the launch of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, cites a Talmudic aphorism: “‘That which is not done for its own sake may ultimately come to be done for its own sake.’ If they start learning about the Holocaust for bad reasons,” he tells me, “they may ultimately come to study it for good reasons, for its own sake.”
It is as difficult to fathom young people dressing up as Holocaust victims as it once was to imagine a slapstick comedian creating a Holocaust film. Or a Holocaust memoir told in a format rooted in the medium that brought us “Archie” and “Spider-Man.”
Yet Roberto Benigni’s film “Life Is Beautiful,” winner of three Oscars, and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” both elevated Holocaust awareness. Social media, in the hands of users who can similarly marry creativity with sensitivity and respect for their subject, can do the same.
Says the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Cooper, “Maybe the most powerful guide to us would be something Joseph Stalin was purported to have said: ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.’ The challenge is to put a human face on the statistics.”