Experiencing the emotions of the Holocaust - on YouTube
When Israeli directors Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein were looking for materials to produce a trailer for their upcoming documentary film about organized school trips to concentration camps in Poland, they decided to turn to YouTube.
Hoping to find one or two home-made videos, they typed in the search term “The Journey to Poland” and to their surprise, found 10,000 results. Today, two years later, there are some 30,000 clips by Israeli teens, teachers and parents, documenting their encounter with the Holocaust as part of the week-long trip, seen as the highlight of Holocaust studies in high schools.
“There is something very intimate about those videos,” tells Nir, “People didn't upload them because someone asked them to, they just wanted to share their experience with others. We started thinking, maybe instead of adding to this, we should try to use it and find out through this compilation what young people actually think.”
And so their documentary film took a turn: Instead of continuing to accompany school classes on their journey, they gathered YouTube videos from the 80s through to today, looking to examine not only how the Holocaust is dealt with on these trips, but also how history is documented in the digital age.
The result was the film “#uploading_holocaust,” which premiered this month at the International Leipzig Festival for documentary films.
The directors' partnership with the German production company Gebrueder Beetz added another layer to the project. In order to explore the point of view of German teens as well, they created a web-based questionnaire, incorporating some of the videos by Israeli and German youths and conducted a survey about their view of the Holocaust, the importance they attribute to these visits and what they think is appropriate behavior in such a situation.
In stark contrast to the behavior portrayed in the film, over 40 percent of respondents noted that taking selfie should be a "no-go" in a concentration camp.
“It's fine when someone takes photos for himself as a reminder, but I don't understand people who stand in front of the crematorium, take a selfie and then upload it with the writing, ';it's such a nice day, look at my new outfit',” says Jakob Gentsch, an 18-year- old Youtuber from Berlin, whose videos are included in the web project.
Although visiting Auschwitz many times, more often than not he preferred to leave the camera in his pocket, filming only in retrospect his thoughts on the trip. “Especially as a German, it doesn't feel right to stand there and take selfies.”
“We called this process 'the touring around of the camera',” points out Nir. “If in the 80s, when these journeys started, people who went there tended to film the places they came to see, as the years went by, people started to film mainly themselves in those places. The people who were commemorating become the center of the commemoration.”
The pressure to feel goes too far?
But for Germans, that behavior is hard to understand, agrees the director. “For Israelis, especially those with a family connection, taking a photo is one of those places connects to the idea of 'my family survived, now I'm here and this is the photo that proves it', so they are proud to do that. But to Germans, these places represent the darkest moments in their history and they are not eager to take photos and share them.”
And if one were to do that, pull out a camera in a gas chamber and take a selfie, he will probably be scolded by a teacher, adds the film's producer Georg Tschurtschenthaler.
That is just one of the differences between the Israeli and the German remembrance culture, he observed. Most Germans aren't even aware of these organized school trips and some of their components – not only the self-documentations but also the ceremonies held at each camp, that often include marches and waiving flags – are quite astonishing to Germans, he says.
Also the dance routines that are a common part of those ceremonies, are perceived differently by Israelis and Germans, noticed Nir. “Israelis are very used to this. They feel like every year in school they have seen the same modern dance with the same cheesy movements, and it just looks weird to them.”
“But many Germans who see this for the first time, they are excited to see this new way of dealing with the Holocaust, to dance about it. They view it as an emotional expression in movement, while Israelis just see the flatness in it.”
However, the most important debate the film evokes revolves around the emotional burden put on the young students during the journey, wondering whether the attempt to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive simply goes too far.
“It's a bit shocking to see the teachers telling the students, 'now you have to feel something,' or handing out photos of dead children and asking students to imaging how old they were and what they experienced in the very place where they died,” admits Gentsch. “I also want to feel what happened, but what they are doing is very harsh.”
Speak the 4th generation's language
Nir also remembers this experience from when he took part in this journey at age 17. “There is this overwhelming pressure to feel something, some kind of an emotion that no one can define, not the students and not the teachers. Everybody wants to feel the Holocaust, but a lot of students get really frustrated because they can't really reach this unknown catharsis.”
This frustration is expressed in many of the videos. Yet in the end many of the students find themselves repeating the words of the teacher, much to the disappointment of the film's creators.
“In the beginning we had the hope that because we are looking at so many different clips from so many different people, we might find a more complex truth than what the textbooks or the teachers have to offer,” explains Nir. “But we discovered that the majority of videos simply copy the official narrative rather than creating their own, as if there is only one way of doing things.”
Those “industrialized elements of Israeli commemoration of the Holocaust,” as Nir calls them, are the focus of the film's critique – and not the selfie culture that provided the materials, stress all the parties involved.
Such behavior is only natural in the digital age, they argue, and it should be used to create new ways of dealing also with the Holocaust, especially when looking to connect youths to this difficult topic.
“It all depends on how one presents it,” insists Gentsch. “Reading a book or watching a normal documentary isn't enough, but when I see these videos, I know they are 100 percent authentic. It's really the personal experiences and the feeling of people my age and their impact is that much stronger.”
The online questionnaire is available on the site uploading-holocaust.com, which also allows German teens to pose questions to Israeli participants and vice-versa, and can be used as an educational tool by teachers. The survey's results will be published late January 2017.
Polina Garaev is i24news' correspondent in Germany.
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