Holocaust meets social media

Anne Frank on Facebook: Collage of Holocaust Facebook profilesI don’t know why this surprised me, but it did—Anne Frank is now on Facebook. And I’m sure she’d be thrilled to know that a boy named Ricky hates the Nazis because they deprived the world of her long legs. I suppose we can chalk one up on the win column that, thanks to the wonders of Web 2.0, little Ricky can relate to a victim of the Holocaust.
Anne Frank is not the only Holocaust victim to have found a new voice and a new fan base (yes, fans) on Facebook. According to the Forward‘s Gal Beckerman, Anne Frank and Henio Zytomirski, another child victim, are just the first in the brave new world of Holocaust memorializing. Earlier this month, the UN announced a Twitter campaign in Anne Frank’s memory, asking students to tweet to her as if it were 1942. And, just in the last week, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam unveiled a new virtual tour to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.

At least Anne Frank’s Facebook page makes it clear the Frank is long dead, and only asks its audience to imagine travelling back in time. That the audience, mostly teens, responds in a series of very contemporary wall posts is to be expected. The Henio Zytomirski page, however, purports to be a real-time page, with updates from Henio that say things like “It will be September soon. I will go to school. I wonder what’s it like at school. I’m a bit afraid. Daddy says there is no need to be afraid. After all he is a teacher.” But what happens when Henio reaches the end of his life? Or will he be perpetually stuck in a loop of today, always moving forward to his date with destiny, without actually reaching it?

As a “fan” of Henio, once I’ve mined his photos and other memorabilia, what’s to keep me interested and engaged? Sure, the real-time status updates personalize his life, but at a certain point, he must either move forward, which in his case, means he dies and my duty of active engagement and remembrance is complete, or he remains forever just shy of that moment, always pondering the September weather. To me, this conflation of the immediacy inherent in a medium that is rooted in the most fleeting of present-ness with the reality of Henio’s life, and more importantly, death, is disingenuous.

In a physical museum, the visitor eventually completes the journey. The same applies for a school project where, for instance, students are asked to write letters to a Holocaust victim; it is a project, with a start and end point, and you are expected to take with you whatever you’ve learned and whatever emotional responses you’ve had. But social media functions differently. Once you’re on Facebook, the general expectation is that you’ll remain on Facebook and continue to interact with your friends—it is the continuation, or beginning, of a relationship. I won’t get into the future of social media here, but generally, you’ve joined and so you’ll remain. It’s not a classroom from which you graduate or a museum which you eventually leave. It becomes part of your identity, the place where you live online. So, to what end becoming a fan of Anne Frank?

“You are only dead if no one talks about you anymore.” Pol Van Den Driessche, Belgian senator

I understand the need to memorialize, and to make things relevant and personal to an audience that is increasingly removed from the Holocaust (and really, the same could be said about any number of museums and historical moments; the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, where visitors are arbitrarily assigned a racial identity to enhance their experience, comes to mind). Museums are up against an onslaught of ephemeral immediacy and Twitter-fuelled ADD. I get it. Go where your audience is. But there is something disturbing about a social media profile for a dead person—social media exists very firmly in the present, in the here and now. That is, in fact, one of the largest criticisms wielded against social media—it is only in the present, an endless collection of fleeting observations and thoughts. And here we have the exact opposite pretending to not be.

I don’t know what the right answer is here. Projects like the Globe and Mail’s Dear Sweetheart letter series, or the Independent’s public appeal to identify a cache of 270 WWI images, are another type of online memorializing. But there’s likely no turning back. The Holocaust has been Web 2.0-ed. And, it isn’t the only memorial campaign on Facebook. Belgium is attempting to create pages for each of the more than 27,000 Allied soldiers killed in Belgium during the war, with the goal of completing the project by 2014, in time for the 70th anniversary since Belgium’s liberation. One can’t help but wonder how many dead soldiers any one person can possibly “fan.”

8 Comments

  1. Stephanie Laskoski on April 30, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Lea:

    This sounds like a deranged version of the Shoah Project, which I thought was really brilliant, but now see how it could inspire the creation of little virtual monsters.

    I find it to be completely creepy that anyone can become a “fan” of Anne Frank on Facebook. On the other hand, I really think it speaks to how alienated most of us seem to feel generally. Personal connections are becoming so diminished that we want to connect with virtual pages to feel a part of something? It could be amusing if it weren’t so sad.

    Steph



  2. Alex Polkovsky on April 30, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I object. Not to your article, it’s great, but to the effort to turn the greatest evil in human history into one story. When you finish reading the book, walking through a museum or visiting a concentration camp site you need to move on to thoughts of the sheer scale of the death and suffering. The millions of other unknown and unmourned victims of a war that set the globe on fire.

    The museum at Auschwitz has mound of anonymous suitcases.

    There’s also a gift shop. There’s no business like the Shoah business. Sadly.



  3. Lea Zeltserman on May 2, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Stephanie – Hadn’t thought of the Shoah Project connection, although (if I’m looking at the right website) it doesn’t look too bad. And to me, that looks more like what I’d expect in terms of Holocaust education keeping pace with technology. Facebook, on the other hand… Partly it’s the language Facebook uses – fan, friend, like (or dislike, as some of us would love to see). Their use of those terms has already been much maligned, but it just becomes so much more twisted when it’s applied to any number of injustices and tragedies. I have the same kind of ick reaction even when I see people becoming “fans” of groups dedicated to missing persons, etc.

    And yeah, you’re right, it’s almost funny, in an ironic way, but so not when you consider how tragically true it is. The Henio page bothers me so much more though – at least the Anne Frank page isn’t pretending she’s anything but dead.



  4. Lea Zeltserman on May 2, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Alex – I completely agree with you – there’s no space to properly absorb and reflect on something like the Holocaust when it’s Facebook-ified. Do I tell Henio what the September weather is like here, and then move on to tell a friend how much I like her wedding photos? It established such an oddly casual, and cavalier, relationship.

    Although ultimately, I think a lot of these things beg the question, how should we remember? And I’m not sure that’s ever going to be answered completely satisfactorily. Some things certainly cross the line more clearly than others though, gift shops being one of them. When I lived in South Africa, we went to Robben Island, where Mandela and other political prisoners were kept. It’s an island off the coast at Cape Town, much like Alcatraz. The set-up is much like what you’d expect of such a site, including former prisoners now acting as guides. But then at the end, there’s a gift shop too. With mugs with Mandela’s prisoner number and such. And seriously, I have to wonder about anyone being able to enjoy their morning java while staring at Mandela’s prisoner number. Or anything along those lines.

    Part of me is curious to see how these types of memorializing initiatives ultimately resolve themselves as technology moves more of us online. But part of me just wants to say “ick.”



  5. Lea Zeltserman on May 2, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Another angle I hadn’t considered – spam. Not Holocaust deniers, but good, old-fashioned porn spam. I was just looking at the Henio page, and noticed a video (from a seemingly legit “friend”), that said something about it being the hottest video ever. The video still, of course, came complete with requisite boob shot. Right below is a message that reads “dear little boy, how could anyone hurt you through bigotry and hate?” and then above is a gift: “I just sent you a Gift!” And then, guess what, Henio can choose to “Reply:Send a Gift Back”. Umm, excuse me?



  6. Alex Polkovsky on May 3, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Lea, you just made my head hurt. I need to deconstruct remembering a moment. It goes like this:

    Honor the tragedy and it’s scale, honor the victims and their humanity, honor your own connection to the event no matter how small. Honor every tragedy. Never again.

    That leaves the question, What have we learned? In a related impulse, I’m looking for a copy of this film:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106997/



  7. Stephanie Laskoski on May 3, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Lea:

    In regards to the Shoah Project, I meant that becoming fans of Holocaust victims is the dark side of such technological projects. Really, I thing the Shoah Project is an incredible accomplishment.

    I think there was a good article in the paper on the weekend about whether activism etc. was becoming too easy. I will try to find it to send it off to you. But your post raises good questions about whether “remembering” is becoming too easy as well.

    Steph



  8. Alex Polkovsky on May 8, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Head cleared up. (And sorry for using ‘it’s’ where I should have used ‘its.’) Have you been watching the events in the Netherlands commemorating liberation from Nazi occupation? That’s how you honor the victims, heroes and modern day inheritors of history. As a community.



© 2017 Lea Zeltserman