Yad Vashem

TECHNOLOGY IN THE SERVICE OF MEMORY

Everyone knows that Yad Vashem is the leading center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, but many dont realize that its online activities now play a major role in Yad Vashems mission to preserve the memory of the Shoah and impart its meaning to future generations

Since its foundation in 1953 on Jerusalems Mount of Remembrance, Yad Vashems raison dtre has been to make knowledge about the Holocaust available, accessible and meaningful to a global audience. For six decades Yad Vashem has been focused on gathering documents, testimonies and artifacts from the Shoah, says Avner Shalev, Chairman of Yad Vashem. While we continue to gather material, today our challenge lies in disseminating this information to ever wider audiences. For the past two decades, we have been in the process of digitizing our holdings, developing pedagogical tools and making primary source materials understandable to the end user – students, educators, researchers and the general public. The Internet, including social media, is a strategic pillar of Yad Vashem, and a key part of our work combating ignorance and antisemitism, and connecting todays Jewish youth and future generations to their roots.

Websites in many languages

The venerable institution started its voyage into the online world at the cusp of the 21st century, with the launch of comprehensive websites in English and Hebrew, followed by Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Farsi and German versions, with pedagogical materials in over 20 languages.

It is important for us to ensure that the writing and editing are at a high level in all the languages, notes Dana Porath, Director of the Internet Department at Yad Vashem, with great efforts directed to developing content that people will find interesting and understand. The expansion of the English and Hebrew websites and the launching of the others were funded by donations and grants, and the investment was well worth the effort – with some 13 million online visits in 2013, compared to about a million visitors to the Jerusalem campus.

The websites offer the virtual equivalent of visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, with extensive online archives, including film and photo collections, the Righteous Among the Nations Database and Deportations Database, educational resources for teachers, research materials for scholars, and much more. Yad Vashem has even made its Holocaust Names Database – with its more than four million names of Holocaust victims – accessible online, enabling people all over the world to discover what happened to their relatives. Another interesting feature is the selection of 160 online exhibitions containing content on a wide variety of topics, such as Youth Groups in the Lodz Ghetto and The Story of a Sephardic Community in Macedonia.

The social media revolution

A few years ago, when it became clear to Yad Vashem that social media is a place for meeting and engaging in conversation, it built a presence for itself in that world too. It now boasts around 96,500 friends on Facebook, 10,700 Twitter followers, 53 Pinterest boards and an active YouTube webpage. These platforms offer unprecedented opportunities for Yad Vashem to instantaneously communicate ideas, share content, and actively engage with and connect to a broad and diverse public.

For Yad Vashem, the great advantage in social media is the endless possibilities to engage new people and expose them to themes related to the Holocaust. As a result of the common social media feature of sharing, items are disseminated to new audiences that may not necessarily be interested in the Holocaust but are interested in what their friends tweeted, pinned or liked. Yad Vashem is also reaping the benefits of the growing ability to selectively advertise and target prospective audiences in order to connect to additional groups, such as those interested in education or history.

Yad Vashems approach to social media is definitely creative, and they are constantly seeking new ways to engage audiences rather than just posting information and hoping someone reads it. Its Facebook page contains an On This Day in Holocaust History feature, as well as timely posts relevant to global events and notable dates, such as an album on Righteous teachers posted right before the start of the school year, or a special item on women who saved Jews by themselves, prepared especially for this years International Womens Day, a sequel to last years Women in the Holocaust post.

A unique Facebook feature is the I Remember wall, which has been erected in each of the past three years for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As Porath explains, Many people read that it is International Holocaust Remembrance Day but dont really know how to actively do something to commemorate it. So we literally made a wall on Facebook, and by joining it, your Facebook profile is automatically linked to a random Page of Testimony of someone who perished in the Holocaust. Between 12,000 and 15,000 people from all over the world have joined the Wall, writing comments in every possible language. We realized that it is an opportunity for people, through Facebook, to actively do something commemorative, not just passively read about something, and be moved. It was very meaningful to them: when we asked people if they would like to submit names for us to read out in Yad Vashems Hall of Remembrance on Holocaust Remembrance Day, many of them submitted the name of the person they were connected to on the I Remember Wall, because they felt that that was their person and thats who they wanted to commemorate.

Pinterest, too, has been found to be an influential medium for forwarding Yad Vashems mission. Yad Vashem has 53 Pinterest boards in English, Spanish and Russian, each an aggregate of material on a particular topic that may contain video, photos and documents. Among the board topics are religious artifacts, Rosh Hashanah, Kristallnacht, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and particular artists. Porath mentions the sports board as an example of Pinterests benefits, explaining that, When someone on Pinterest searches for pictures of diving, boxing or soccer, our picture comes up, with a link to the relevant content on the website. They werent looking necessarily for pictures from the Holocaust, but if they find it interesting, it draws them to the website; it attracts people who werent necessarily looking for something Holocaust-related. Yad Vashems Pinterest boards are particularly popular among teachers, because they know the content is coming from a reputable source and their students learn a lot from the information provided and from creating more boards.

Learning from YouTube and Twitter

It is projected that by 2016, 80% of peoples online learning experience will be through video, a future Yad Vashem is well prepared to meet, with nine million video viewers in the past seven years alone. All of its approximately 2,000 videos, in seven language channels, are hosted on YouTube and contain links to the Yad Vashem website. Its YouTube webpage includes playlists on all kinds of topics, such as Survivor Testimonies, The Jewish Community of Chelm, Insights and Perspectives from Holocaust Historians and Using Testimony Films in the Classroom.

Through Twitter, continuous links are sent out briefly describing events On This Day in Holocaust History, as well as promoting a host of conferences, gatherings, symposiums, events and visits taking place at Yad Vashem on a daily basis. It is also used to expose fellow-tweeters to various Shoah events and themes that would otherwise go unnoticed. The Deportation Database, for example, contains a vast amount of information on the hundreds of deportations of Jews during the Holocaust, but unless one is searching for a particular deportation, one will probably never access this resource. Yet a tweet noting On this day, an entire deportation train left with only one woman would spark ones curiosity to follow the link, and likewise assists teachers in presenting the topic to their students. We use Twitter a lot, and its an ongoing challenge to make the subject matter respectful in 140 characters, notes Porath.

Online exhibitions, courses and more

Yad Vashems online activities form an integral part of its four central pillars: commemoration, documentation, research and education. The online exhibitions on Jewish music, life and communities are a great way, for example, of expressing commemoration, with the ultimate platform, of course, being the Holocaust Names Database. The online digital archives, such as the Deportations Database and the Killing Sites in the former Soviet Union Database, all researched carefully by Yad Vashems International Institute for Holocaust Research, serve both as documentation platforms and research resources.

As for Yad Vashems pedagogical efforts, its International School for Holocaust Studies has an active virtual component, including online courses and materials. It is not necessarily intuitive that a place like Yad Vashem would have the strategic vision to understand how important online platforms are; Yad Vashem has been a very strong proponent of reaching out online in order to teach, share and document this horrific event and make it meaningful 70 years later. Especially in the aftermath of this summers expressions of  antisemitism and Holocaust denial, providing accurate historical information is more vital than ever, says Porath. 

Yad Vashems future plans for its online platforms include adding more languages to the website and increasing opportunities to interact in social media in other languages – all requiring the hiring of additional staff to its content development and technology teams. This investment will enable Yad Vashem to keep up with the constant evolution of online applications and social networking behavior, and make sure its website and online activities stay as current and relevant as possible so that the memory of the Holocaust remains meaningful to future generations.    

Connecting people

Yad Vashems social media platforms are enabling the formation of mini-communities that share particular interests, such as the same ancestral home towns or displaced persons camps. One particularly touching example centers on a batch of old postcards. A staff member recently brought back some postcards illustrated by Professor Alfred Grotte from a Gathering the Fragments collection day – a Yad Vashem campaign designed to gather items from the Holocaust with personal meaning.

The Internet Department decided to post the cards on Facebook, which subsequently caught the eye of Daniel Camhi, who notified his cousin, Marcel Calef, a resident of Miami, Florida, that pictures of items bearing their great-grandfathers name appeared online. With the mediating assistance of Yad Vashem, Calef got in touch with the former owner of the cards, Moshe Posener, an Israeli citizen whose grandparents, Hugo and Gretel Lewin, were family friends of Grotte; the Lewins and Grotte were all murdered during the Holocaust.

Through this chain of events, a social networking post translated into a meaningful correspondence and, eventually, a personal meeting at Yad Vashem this past summer, during which Posener and Calef traded family stories and looked together at documents and pictures from the Holocaust period that Calef had brought to donate to Yad Vashem.

For more information about Yad Vashem: www.yadvashem.org, international.relations@yadvashem.org.il, +972-2-6443420.