Inadvertently, I’ve been caught in a social media war because of a selfie.
I should explain. It took me years, despite writing professionally about the Holocaust and all its horrors, to visit the worst of the Nazi concentration camps —Auschwitz.
I visited Mauthausen and Teresienstadt years ago and was somewhat horrified at my response: a terrible outpouring of emotion which I couldn’t help but wonder, was it fake on my part, or genuine? After all, as far as I know, I had not lost anyone in the camps — or indeed in the Holocaust at all. I say “as far as I know” advisedly, because such eastern European relatives as I may have had, have vanished in our family history. I have no means of knowing if they died peacefully or in torment.
So I really didn’t trust my tears and was nervous about going to Auschwitz, which I eventually did a few years ago under the auspices of March of the Living.
This was a much better — or worse — experience. We travelled with survivors and educators, clearly laying out what had happened and where. This time, I felt, if I had tears, they were not insincere but motivated by empathy and better understanding.
The one thing that made me deeply uncomfortable, however, was the constant validation of visitor experience by the clicking of cameras. People were posing under the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” entrance, or standing for group shots against a barracks background.
I hated it, and I was visiting at a time when the selfie phenomenon had barely begun.
And so to today, where a perfect storm of bitching has erupted over a picture taken of a young woman, maybe in her late teens or early 20s — old enough to know better, anyway — posing on the railway tracks leading to the Birkenau part of the camp. Her pose, I am sorry to say, invites the question of whether her behind looks big in the picture.
The Auschwitz Museum, which has been asking for respectful behaviour for months now, acknowledged that “pictures can capture important moments and shape our memory”. But, the museum spokesman added: “There are lines that should not be crossed. The lines of respect and decency. The lines of simple common sense.”
Frankly, I would have thought this rather gentle warning was basic stuff. You don’t, you simply don’t, take tourist-type selfies at a site where mass murder took place. Anyone who doesn’t understand this should not be there.
However. Several people who shared this observation made the same point on Facebook and Twitter — and, inevitably, unleashed the lunatics, a number of whom made vulgar and sexist comments about the woman in question.
And, unfortunately, it suddenly became a discussion about presumed misogyny on the part of those who had re-published her picture “without her permission”, had “shamed” her, had “humiliated” her.
Well, she didn’t seem to have thought twice about shaming and humiliating the memory of those who had died where she was standing. And I wonder if those people so eager to leap to her defence would have been so keen had the person posing been a young man.
Take away the misogyny element and what you are left with is a young person being stupid. Which is something we can all relate to, because we were all young and, I daresay, stupid, once. But it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from our mistakes.
So here goes: it is legitimate to cry at a concentration camp, even if you had no personal connection, because it is completely human to feel appalled by the horrors that took place. It is not legitimate to pose for smiling selfies as a way of validating your visit. This is not a nightclub where you get a rubber stamp on your hand — no matter your gender.