Reinventing Holocaust remembrance for the younger generation - opinion

75% of young people believe a change is needed in the way the Israeli education system conveys Holocaust content.

 Yahrzeit candles with names of Holocaust victims are giving away to the public ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, April 26, 2022 (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Yahrzeit candles with names of Holocaust victims are giving away to the public ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, April 26, 2022
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, is all about commemorating the loss of 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Telling the stories of the victims and survivors is the priority on this day, and what makes it so important. On that day, we say here in Israel – “Never again. Never forget.”

This sentence emphasizes how important it is to commemorate that day. As the years go by, the survivors are getting older and fewer. It also becomes harder to make the young generation relate to their stories and remember the horrors.

This is not only because the content is too difficult to handle. The problem nowadays is primarily in the medium. The way in which the story of the Holocaust is conveyed to youth today is prehistoric in terms of the technology available in this generation and the method has not been updated in decades. The result is that young people are less connected to the memory of the Holocaust, view it as archaic and sometimes avoid it as if it was part of their history class homework.

In a survey we took, we found 75% of young people believe a change is needed in the way the Israeli education system conveys Holocaust content. My generation was a captive audience on Yom Hashoah. There were very few television or radio stations at the time, and they all broadcasted Holocaust shows on that day. The situation today is entirely different, as this generation has far more options. They are able to escape this day and consume international content that does not deal with the Holocaust at all.

This is why we initiated Sharing Memories – a series of doco-stories where Israel’s top artists and creators share their meetings with holocaust survivors using the Stories feature on Instagram. Our mission with this project, launched together with the Israeli organization Latet, was to explore the ways to reach the younger generation in their comfort zone, where they would want to listen, open their hearts, get to know this history and pass the stories on.

 SHARING MEMORIES: What does Holocaust Remembrance Day mean to you?’ (credit: META AND LATET) SHARING MEMORIES: What does Holocaust Remembrance Day mean to you?’ (credit: META AND LATET)

We wanted not only to reach youth where they are, but to tell the story in a way that would interest them, in a format that they could identify with, presented in a way that would suit them and catch their attention. At a time when losing focus is easier than it ever was and distractions are abundant, this is quite the challenge.

The way to make the Holocaust stories more accessible to younger generations is not simply to tell the same horrific stories. We discovered that in order to reach their hearts, we needed to create a personal and authentic experience, through Instagram Stories, which are available on the screen that is constantly in the palm of their hand. We have created a series of intimate meetings of famous content creators and influencers with survivors, who recorded them on their accounts. In doing so, we gave a voice to people with the most powerful and important story to tell, who have no platform to do so.

Teenagers will be exposed to this content on the Instagram accounts of people they already know and follow, such as celebrities and content creators with thousands of followers each. Teenagers get to view the personal side of the stories, one-on-one sessions with a Holocaust survivors. We decided to create a mini-docu series that includes a collection of touching moments alongside historical facts, documentation of the horrifying crimes alongside moments of singing, cooking and humor interwoven in the survivors’ stories, according to the type of content each participating influencer creates and posts regularly.

We wanted to present Holocaust survivors center stage as fully rounded figures – making teenagers’ attitude towards them different from the ones they could read about in history books or learn about in school. Teenagers like it and believe it better. Eva’s Story opened a different possibility for us all to tackle Holocaust education and make the testimonies much more accessible to younger generations.

Social media was taboo up until then in that realm. Once the door was opened, we may have heard many opinions, both positive and negative, but at the end of the day it worked. Millions of teenagers watched Eva’s Story and studied in a direct manner about past horrors. If one does it right, it fulfills our responsibility – to reach out to youth where they already are, not where we would like them to be.

This is what a modern and innovative commemoration initiative looks like. It’s time to face reality and accept that we live in an age when technology and social media are the main means of community-building and information spreading. We cannot escape modifying commemoration to popular platforms.

We need to give our teenagers more credit. Last year, we witnessed the numbers and reactions with awe, and realized millions have watched the survivors’ testimonies on Instagram Stories. We understood that we need to speak to our teenagers intelligently, tell them an interesting and complex story, and edit it well, but most definitely to not underestimate them.

They do care for Holocaust remembrance, it is part of their story as well, and that is why we cannot allow ourselves to take shortcuts. On one hand, we should not demean the horrifying stories or the unequivocal lessons, yet on the other, we must make sure we understand they belong to a different generation, and therefore should be also approached differently.

Technology helps us bring survivors’ stories to life, especially when their generation is slowly disappearing. If we do not take advantage of technology wisely and utilize it for commemoration today (if not yesterday) – tomorrow might be too late. The rapid advancement of technology might cause understandable hesitation, but the day when Holocaust commemoration and education will be done on VR platforms, is not far at all. As long as it serves our shared purpose, “remember and never forget”, it is for the better.

The writer is head of communications at Meta in Israel.