The huge billboards popping up around Israel feature a hand behind barbed wire clutching a cellphone. The words “Eva’s Story” are written in big bold letters at the top, and below it this teaser: “What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?”
It's become the talk of the town. Who was Eva? What was her story? And who was behind this expensive and mysterious campaign that has taken over Israel’s highways?
Over the past few days, details have started to emerge. The girl in question is Eva Heyman, a 13-year-old Hungarian Jew who died in Auschwitz. She kept a diary for three and a half months, until she was deported to the death camp in May 1944. It was discovered by her mother after the war and published as a book more than half a century ago.
Thanks to this unusual, ambitious and rather controversial social media campaign, Eva’s forgotten diary has suddenly been thrust into the public limelight and is sure to receive a new lease of life. With funding provided by an Israeli high-tech mogul, the project aims to educate young Israelis about the Holocaust using a platform that has become second nature to most of them.
@eva.stories — the Instagram account created for the project — only goes live on Wednesday afternoon, to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day (which officially starts that evening), but as of last count it already had 118,000 followers.
“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,” said Mati Kochavi, the multimillionaire behind the project, in a first public statement about it. “Instagram is a storytelling platform, and like any media and content platform it can tell both deep and superficial stories.
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“The idea behind the project,” he added in the official press release, “is 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.”
In her diary, Eva expressed her dream of moving to London one day and becoming a photojournalist. “We wanted to help her realize this dream after it was shattered in one instant,” explained Kochavi. “We translated her diary into video clips, we gave her a smartphone instead of a camera, we published her writings on Instagram instead of in a newspaper, and we brought her story first to Israel and then to London and the rest of the world.”
'This is genocide — not a PR project'
Once the Instagram account goes live, dozens of videos, stills and posts will be uploaded on an hourly basis, the statement said, documenting events in the final months of Eva’s life. Her followers will become acquainted through them with the Holocaust victim’s friends and family members, and they will witness the Nazi invasion of her hometown, her forced relocation to a ghetto, and other hardships and humiliations she was forced to endure before boarding a train headed for Auschwitz.
A sneak preview of the “stories” was provided earlier this week in a promotional trailer, which already has nearly 250,000 views. Welcoming her followers, the young actress who plays Eva — speaking English with a European accent — tells them that this is the page where they can find her “random thoughts, crushes and my hashtag BFFs.” They learn that she lives with her grandparents and dreams of one day becoming a “famous reporter.”
According to the press statement, some 400 technical staff, actors and extras participated in producing the videos, which were shot in Lviv, Ukraine. It added that dozens of Israeli social medial influencers and celebrities have been recruited to help promote the project.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also chipped in to promote the project. In a video he shared Monday on his Twitter account, he said it "exposes the immense tragedy of our people through the story of one girl."
In a Hebrew message, Netanyahu encouraged "each and every" Israeli to make their own Instagram stories about Holocaust victims, "so that the world understands and we remember what was lost and what was returned to us with the establishment of the State of Israel."
But not all Israelis are rallying behind the initiative. “Eva’s Story” has drawn criticism for trivializing the Holocaust and dumbing it down. “I’m young, and nobody had to make the Holocaust more accessible for me,” one person wrote on the project’s Instagram page. “I took an interest on my own. This is genocide — not a PR project for Instagram. Do me a favor.”
“Where does she charge her phone?” another snarky commenter asked. “I’m dying to know.”
In a column published in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz this week, Yuval Mendelson, a musician and civics teacher, attacked the initiative, saying it showed disrespect for young Israelis. “The rationale is simple,” he wrote. “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed will come to the mountain.”
Young people today, he conceded, have a high stimulation threshold that is not always easy to cross. “But a fictitious Instagram account of a girl murdered in the Holocaust is not and cannot be a legitimate way,” Mendelson wrote. “First, it’s a display of bad taste, being promoted aggressively and crudely. And second, even worse, it’ll have ramifications. The path from ‘Eva’s Story’ to selfies at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau is short and steep. At the end gather all the tongue-clickers and head-shakers, and each in turn will tell us about our lost and disconnected youth, devoid of values and shame.”
Responding to Mendelson’s criticism, Dr. Noam Tirosh, a scholar of media and collective memory at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, argued that the initiative potentially had great merit. In a column published in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz on Monday, he wrote: “The only question that needs to be asked in this context is the question of the message and not the medium. In other words, if Eva’s Instagram page is exploited to promote a one-dimensional, shallow narrative of the Holocaust, it is doomed to failure. By contrast, if it exploits the advantages that exist in Instagram to share complex messages about the Holocaust, its lessons and its significance for us today, it will be a resounding success.”