Telling the Holocaust story to a new generation

Millennials and Gen Z are producing Holocaust-related videos, reaching large younger audiences and keeping the history relevant even as first-person survivor stories are slowly slipping away.

 ISRAELI STUDENTS in Poland as part of the ‘#Uploading_Holocaust’ project.  (photo credit: NFCT, Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg)
ISRAELI STUDENTS in Poland as part of the ‘#Uploading_Holocaust’ project.
(photo credit: NFCT, Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg)

As the world approaches International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau, a new generation has taken to new media to share Holocaust remembrance stories. 

Millennials and Gen Z are both producing and viewing videos, films, animated features, travelogues and now podcasts posted on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Facebook, reaching new younger audiences by the millions. While the subject matter has not changed, the new media experience has brought an impact to remembrance experiences that keep history relevant even as first-person survivor stories are slowly slipping away.

In the early post-war years, notably in Israel there was very little interest in hearing the stories from Holocaust survivors, more than 300,000 of whom chose to resettle and begin new lives in the new State of Israel. They were not warmly treated by the “new Jews” who left Europe before the war and fought for the establishment of the state.

Newly arrived Holocaust survivors were stigmatized as victims who failed to resist the systematic Nazi persecution, confiscations, forced deportations to slave labor camps and ultimately mass murder facilities. Survivors felt inhibited from telling their stories, and Israelis weren’t interested in hearing them. The sheer number, six million Jewish victims, was too large a concept for many to fully grasp the reality.

This only began to change in the 1950s with the publication of two impactful books, The Diary of Anne Frank in 1952 and Elie Wiesel’s Night, published in 1960. For the first time, powerful first-person accounts caught the attention of mass audiences relating to individuals caught up in previously unimaginable extraordinarily terrifying inhumane experiences, begging the question “what would I have done if this were happening to me?”

But reading books was dramatically eclipsed in 1961 when Israel broadcast the trial of former Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann to the world, live from a Jerusalem theater-turned courtroom. In the early 1960s there were no Israeli television broadcast stations and Israelis didn’t even own televisions. To watch the American-produced broadcast of the Eichmann trial, Israelis assembled in local movie theaters while worldwide audiences watched at home. 

ADOLF EICHMANN speaks during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. (credit: GPO)
ADOLF EICHMANN speaks during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. (credit: GPO)

With the support and encouragement of prime minister David Ben-Gurion, prosecutors presented their case via the testimony of individual Holocaust victim/survivors who had resettled in Israel. For the first time the traumatic testimony of individuals was on full public display. 

As historian, author and professor Deborah Lipstadt said in a recent lecture, “the trial emphasized individual suffering, making the point that what happened was one-by-one.

“Future generations, those who were not there, must remember what happened,” says Lipstadt, “and we who were there must tell them.

“This may be the most enduring legacy of what happened in Jerusalem in 1961.”

Still with the mass audiences viewing the Eichmann trial it took decades before Hollywood was ready to create and display feature films with the Holocaust as the central subject. Major box office stars like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man all starred in landmark films of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but it was Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Academy Award-winning Schindler’s List that demonstrated Holocaust films had reached a new level of interest with mass audiences of a new generation achieving worldwide gross revenue of more $300 million.

With the success of Schindler’s List Spielberg partnered with the University of Southern California to form the USC Shoah Foundation, whose mission is the compilation of a video history archive of as many living Holocaust survivors willing to have their stories recorded. More than 55,000 such survivor videos now reside in the USC Shoah Foundation archives.

Meanwhile the Israeli public school system enhanced its high school Holocaust education courses by sponsoring guided class trips to European sights of Nazi atrocities, which became known as the Journey to Poland. 

Contemporary Israeli filmmakers Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein recently created a documentary composed entirely of YouTube videos uploaded by student participants over the years during their Journey to Poland. Nir and Bornstein discovered more than 30,000 Israeli student YouTube videos uploaded over the past 30 years, editing some of them into a cohesive story titled #Uploading_Holocaust, released in late 2016.

“It’s a film very dear to our hearts,” said Nir in a recent interview. He related that what has become a nearly ubiquitous experience for most Israeli high school students began in the late 1980s by one teacher who herself was a Holocaust survivor but thought that witnessing in person was more powerful and memorable than Holocaust survivors coming to speak to classes.

Since then however the Education Ministry has become involved and created suggested guidelines for participants in the Journey to Poland, one of which Nir discovered is a recommendation that students film their experiences, which documents these personal experiences now called embodied remembrance.

“It’s very interesting that the ministry itself is encouraging this action of self-documentation,” according to Nir. “Students are encouraged to bring and display flags of Israel, which many carry or wear as capes while touring the concentration camps.” Among the other proscribed elements is a ceremony upon returning to Israel with parents of participants in the audience. All of this is documented in #Uploading_Holocaust. 

One former high school student participant in her class Journey to Poland, Batya Brownstein, was chosen to speak at the return ceremony, which turned into a 2014 invitation to speak before the 9th International Conference on Holocaust Education hosted by Yad Vashem. Brownstein reminded the audience that she is “a member of the fourth generation who have learned about the Holocaust from the first generation who survived to tell their stories.”

Brownstein related in her Yad Vashem speech that “going to Poland was important to me, I wanted to see firsthand, perhaps to try to understand, something drew me there.” As a young Israeli, Brownstein came away believing that “along with the vitality and strength that defines Israel as a country, the presence of the Holocaust lives among us.

“The Holocaust influences us in our daily lives whether we chose to give back to the community by serving in national service or the Israel Defense Forces,” she explained, “I see in Holocaust studies a powerful display of redemption.”

This mixing of the study of Holocaust history linking it with Zionism and emotional connection to defending Israel is troublesome to some participants, parents and observers. #Uploading_Holocaust YouTube videos repeatedly spotlight this aspect, which Nir himself experienced during his personal high school trip to Poland.

“I remember this incredible emotional pressure you feel to get to a place where you are crying and wrapped in an Israeli flag,” he recalled. “You have to break down in tears, which means you have completed the program.”

While films and videos of Holocaust testimony and memories have proliferated since the 1990s, the podcasting media phenomenon became a new platform for embodied remembrance effectively used by Rachael Cerrotti, who turned her 2019 7-part podcast - the first ever narrative podcast based on a Holocaust survivor’s story - into a 2021 book We Share the Same Sky.

A Hebrew University one-year program alumna, Cerrotti immersed herself on a 10-year journey researching and personally traveling to recreate her grandmother’s Holocaust survivor odyssey, achieving a new level of embodied remembrance. Her project as told in a WBUR-Boston public radio story caught the attention of Stephen Smith, USC Shoah Foundation executive director, who contacted Cerrotti with the information that her grandmother’s video testimony had been recorded and was available for her research. 

Of the 55,000 USC Shoah Foundation videos, Cerrotti’s grandmother Hana Dubova was one of them (recorded in 1998) something Cerrotti discovered after she began her research into her grandmother’s survivor journey. Having Dubova’s voice telling her own story lent itself perfectly to the radio/podcast format, explained We Share the Same Sky co-producer Erika Lantz.

“It is entertaining. It is moving emotionally. It’s personal, it’s telling a story that we’ve all heard in many different ways in a slightly new way,” explained Lantz in a recent interview.

“How do we talk about the Holocaust; how do we keep it fresh and new for younger kids who are just that much further away?

“I love audio, I’m an evangelist for audio. I think it’s an incredible medium. There’s something about hearing someone’s voice, and you can tell when they’re getting emotional, and you can’t translate that easily onto the written page. Being able to capture more of the essence of who someone is and how they communicate through the sound of their voice is just a magical mixture for me. So I’m really glad that podcasts exist. They’re just another way to tell stories that I really love,” says Lantz.

Smith at the USC Shoah Foundation was so moved by Cerrotti’s podcast he brought her on board as the first ever storyteller-in-residence to co-host and produce The Memory Generation, a 2021 USC Shoah Foundation-sponsored podcast.

Recently new media platforms hosted creative telling of Holocaust stories via dramas designed for viewing by the Gen Z demographic in 2020 and 2021, notably on Instagram and TikTok. eva.stories was created specifically for Instagram, earning well over 1 million followers. It’s shot in a selfie format with the central character, Eva Heymann, a Hungarian Jew deported and murdered in Auschwitz, telling her own story as if she owned a cellphone.

In early 2021, enterprising young Briton Dov Forman produced for his favorite platform, TikTok, a series of short video interviews with his 98-year-old great-grandmother Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert, which gained more than 1.5 million views in less than a year. 

The creators of the project, the father-daughter team of hi-tech millionaire Mati Kochavi, 57, and his 27-year-old daughter, Maya, see it as an ideal way to bring a younger generation in direct contact with memories of the Holocaust, they explained recently to German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“In the digital age, when the attention span is low, but the thrill span is high, and given the dwindling number of survivors, it is imperative to find new models of testimony and memory,” Mati Kochavi said in a statement. eva.stories wants “to use social media to create a new genre of memory, and we hope in this way to bring viewers close to Eva’s life and to the depths of her soul,” he added. The success of both eva.stories and @lilyebert are proving that the fourth generation can be reached and telling the stories of the Holocaust is not just a subject for history books and high school classrooms.