Is it a work that promotes memory of the Holocaust, or does it brutally trample on it? Does it insult young people, or find a contemporary and effective way to penetrate their wall of apathy? Is it as shallow as Instagram, or an innovative breakthrough? Does it exploit the Holocaust to tell a forced, superficial story or does it finally skip over the moldy clichés of memorial ceremonies and obsolete history books?
It’s hard to remember when a new media creation has caused so many Israelis to get so emotional and argumentative – before anyone had actually seen it. The tactics that were the hallmark of outgoing Culture Minister Miri Regev have in recent days entered the public domain, and the fights that have broken out on social networks and in the media about “Eva’s Story” have been particularly stormy and emotional, raising clouds of dust that hid the absurdity of arguing over a work no one has yet seen – but one that looms strikingly over the Ayalon Highway.
Just before “Eva’s Story,” the first Instagram Holocaust video, was scheduled to land in your smartphone, the two people behind the presumptuous project, father-daughter team Mati and Maya Kochavi, explained their controversial initiative. Mati Kochavi, 57, is a millionaire who controls a few successful high-tech companies and whose father is a Holocaust researcher. Maya Kochavi, 27, has spent most of her life in New York. She started a women’s empowerment blog for girls and has utilized her knowledge of social networks to advise international corporations on how to use them to communicate with children and teens.
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Is a platform like Instagram – which is based on “likes,” rating, visual images and short videos that inevitably lead to shallow discourse – the right way to preserve the memory of the Holocaust?
“I can assure you that this was the first question that came up when they made the first feature film about the Holocaust,” says the elder Kochavi.
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His daughter is quick to defend her generation and its apps. “Instagram isn’t as superficial a tool as many people think... Instagram is essentially the new diary, and to use this platform, to exploit the way it enables you to feel that you are living the life of the person you’re seeing, is incredible. To use this for a historical concept, to take this tool and put some seriousness into it, is very powerful for the young generation,” Maya says.
“The truth is, I don’t understand how one asks such a question,” adds Mati. “People are getting confused because there’s a lot of bullshit on Instagram. But I’ll tell you a secret: There’s a lot of bullshit on television and in the movies, too. So does this mean that there are no movies or series that move you? I’m surprised by the conservatism and lack of understanding regarding the power of this tool, which is capable of revealing something about the Holocaust that we don’t understand.
“I’m a historian by training, and over the years I’ve read some 200 books about the Holocaust, so I know this chapter in history. When I took my camera in hand I started to think about how Eva felt and what she saw. There’s that famous photo of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto standing with his hands up and you see the look on his face. We are seeing a photo that the Nazis took, but I always wondered what he saw in front of him at that moment. So we are taking this thing and asking questions. What, for example, did this girl feel the first time they put the yellow star on her? The ‘Instagram movie’ as we are calling it, gives you another angle from which to look at something, an angle that didn’t exist until now, because a movie director who would take the same story would do it entirely differently.
“This tool lets you see the world in a new way, a way that another medium doesn’t allow – and people are mistaken about it and its capabilities. It’s not superficial. After you see the film, you can come and tell me ‘you’re superficial, your work is superficial,’ or the opposite. But it’s not the tool. Instagram is an amazing storytelling tool, because it forces you to look at unique angles, and people can use it to create amazing and fascinating works of art.”
One of the salient virtues of this social network is its ability to create a special intimacy with the character in front of you, says Maya. “That’s something that we have known for years. When I built fictional characters that spoke through Instagram and Facebook with girls and teenagers who were dealing with various difficulties – eating disorders, abuse, exploitation, etc. – their response was amazing. They felt they could open up, that they had someone to talk to. They felt that is was a safe place for them. So if the content isn’t superficial, the platform isn’t superficial either.”
Endorsement from the PM
“Eva’s Story,” is a film made up of dozens of clips that were scheduled to go online Wednesday and Thursday one after the other as Instagram stories. The first clip was to be posted at 4 P.M. Wednesday (on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day) on the project’s Instagram page (@eva.stories), to be followed by more and more clips, every half an hour, for 24 hours.
The plot is based on a diary written by Eva Heyman, a 13-year-old Hungarian girl, whose country was invaded by the Nazis in 1944. “What if a Girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?” read the billboards that were positioned over Gush Dan’s Ayalon Highway, which is also the question that opens the trailer that’s gone viral over the past few days.
Numerous celebrities were enlisted to promote the project on social media. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined the hype. In a clip that Netanyahu posted on his Twitter feed, he not only said that he had seen “Eva’s Story” before it was released, but called on everyone to create their own stories about Holocaust victims. “So that the world will understand and so we can remember what we lost and what was returned to us with the establishment of the State of Israel.”
Some 218,000 people (as of Tuesday morning) were already following Eva on Instagram. This mix of Holocaust, trendiness, celebrities, clips and the colorful trailer with dancing, ice cream, a selfie and animated hearts, doesn’t exactly go arm-in-arm with the serious, statesmanlike, somber, preferably-in-black-and-white tone that has characterized Holocaust memory over the decades.
Will we forget who killed whom?
The idea for the project grew out of a conversation Mati Kochavi had a year ago with a few friends about Holocaust memory. “These friends, intellectuals who represent the more conservative approach to memory – museums, books, etc, – spoke to me about a big museum project they wanted to do. Studies we had done showed that interest in the Holocaust is starting to wane; in the rest of the world it almost doesn’t exist. At a certain point I realized that to a 15-year-old, the Holocaust seems as distant as the American Civil War seemed to me.
“Then one day I saw an interesting program about the Tutsis and the Hutus, and I realized that no one even remembers who had murdered whom there – did the Tutsis kill the Hutus, or the opposite. And I said to myself, ‘wait a minute, perhaps one day someone will get confused and ask himself who was killing whom in the Holocaust.’ It was a horrifying thought.
“Holocaust memory is something that I’ve been occupied with for more than 30 years,” says Kochavi. “When I was a student I wrote a play on the subject, and then I started thinking of how we could speak about it in a way that a lot of people would want to see it.”
Six years ago Kochavi founded the American company Vocativ, which uses data mining technology on the web to find interesting stories and create original content from them that is then distributed on Facebook. He understood that the answer was to be found in the social networks. He recruited an academic who helped him examine some 30 personal diaries written during the Holocaust and he chose Eva Heyman’s. He then asked his daughter Maya to help him adapt the diary into young people’s language and the codes of social media.
Eva as aspiring photojournalist
“Eva wanted very much to be a photojournalist and to live in London. That was her dream. So we said, ‘OK, let’s let her take pictures.’ After all, this is today’s camera,” Mati says, picking up the cell phone on the table in front of him. “Let’s allow her to publish where people publish their content if they aren’t professional journalists. The social networks that handles photography best is Instagram. That’s how it started.”
They started to turn the diary into a script, thought about which parts of the diary Eva would have photographed, what she would have posted to Instagram, what she would have been able to photograph and when she would have had to hide the camera. They wanted the film to look authentic, which is why they decided that the camera angle would always be at her eye level, from her perspective, and were careful to stick to the historical facts as much as possible. “Historical accuracy was very important to us,” Mati said. Filming was done in Lviv, Ukraine, and involved some 400 production people, actors and extras, military equipment and period costumes and props.
The production was extensive and the advertising campaign costly. Mati Kochavi spent his own money on it, “a few million,” though he declined to give exact figures. “If I can get millions of the world’s children to watch this story, so that they’ll know there was a Holocaust, and everyone will draw their own conclusions from it, then this is the best investment that I, as a human being, could make in my lifetime,” he says.
Sent to gas chamber by Mengele
“Very quickly it became my personal commitment to Eva. Maya and I simply fell in love with her. People donate all the time, everyone in his own way. For us this was a contribution and the question of ‘why’ isn’t relevant here. But the answer is very clear. We’re talking about a girl who 75 years ago sat in Auschwitz in October with injured legs, hiding behind a nurse. Then came Josef Mengele and when he saw her hiding he personally put her on the truck that took her to the gas chambers. Now, 75 years later, her name is suddenly appearing in the State of Israel. I’m a very rich man and I’ve done a lot of very successful things, but I tend to think that this will be the thing I’ll be most proud of.”
The arguments about how cinema presents the Holocaust continue today. Even “Schindler’s List,” which brought the Holocaust to millions, was criticized for how it filmed this trauma. Did you have red lines about what to show or how to film things?
“As someone who grew up in America, I can say that most of my friends know details about the Holocaust because of ‘Schindler’s List,’” says Maya. “It’s amazing to hear criticism about that movie; it opened up so many people’s eyes to a topic that was removed from them. So to me any narrative that brings people closer to the Holocaust, that makes them think about the topic and understand it – that’s the most important thing.”
“We had red lines, absolutely,” says Mati. “And they would be there if I had been making a regular movie or if I had been writing a book on the subject. I wouldn’t want to go into Auschwitz, for example. I wouldn’t show what Spielberg showed in his film; I wouldn’t show a sharpshooter who shoots people there. I put limits on the story. I don’t like to portray extreme situations but to hint at them.
“The question about what it meant to be a woman in the Holocaust, which other directors would have taken to a place that would show rape and beatings and sexual exploitation of women – I don’t show that. I can hint at it, as Eva did in her diary. She writes, ‘There are things they do to women here that I can’t even tell you.’ That’s something I can connect to.
“There were other things that were red lines for me: It had to be serious, accurate and sensitive. We aren’t making a scandal of the story; we are being loyal to the real content of the diary.”
Maybe putting up huge billboards over the Ayalon isn’t the most sensitive way to advertise a project dealing with the Holocaust.
“I’m giving you this interview because it’s important to me to promote ‘Eva’s Story.’ I hate publicity,” says Mati Kochavi. “I live my life quietly, my PR office hates me because I’m one of its worst clients. Did we do the right thing [with the billboards]? I don’t know, we consulted experts and that’s what they advised us to do. Maybe it was the right thing because look, everyone’s talking about it. Eva wanted to be a famous photographer in London, so we gave her a camera, let her tell her story on Instagram, and put up huge billboards in Tel Aviv. We said that instead of London, it’s Tel Aviv and she’ll be famous in Israel.
Another girl besides Anne Frank
“I had a dream that I met Eva in Auschwitz, she was sitting there with her friend, leaning on a wall with her legs crossed, and I told her, ‘I can’t save you, but in 75 years I will tell your story.’ And she’s looking at me from above. From my perspective we’ve brought another girl into our memory aside from Anne Frank. Everyone’s talking about Eva, and I’m not sure that’s so terrible.”
Of course it’s not terrible. The question is whether it’s proper to advertise the Holocaust on a huge billboard over the Ayalon.
“You’re asking a fair question, but still, apparently if I hadn’t done it, you wouldn’t be sitting here with us now,” says Mati Kochavit. “Maybe no one would have written about it, and it could be that Maya and I would have sat during the weekend and watched what we’d done with a few friends and said too bad that everyone wasn’t watching it. That billboard wasn’t disrespectful, because all it showed was a hand holding a telephone near her name near the barbed wire behind which she spent the last four years of her life. If we offended someone, then I’m very sorry. Really.
“The criticism of us was minor compared to the sympathy. We have tools to measure this, and they found that 80 percent of the responses were favorable and some 20 percent objected. You mentioned earlier that the trailer was joyful – you have to remember that she was a girl, and her struggle was to be happy in the ghetto and in the most difficult situations. That’s part of the drama in the diary.”
Maybe this obsession with preserving the memory of the Holocaust is an archaic notion that it’s time to give up on? Maybe we have to relieve our children of this burden, of this fear? What purpose does it serve, exactly – after all, everyone tailors the historic lesson to their own opinions.
“A lot of questions like that come from laziness, when we’re too lazy to think of a new way to solve problems. Lots of times entrepreneurs seek to solve a problem in a new way that no one’s ever thought of. I’m trying to solve the problem of how to teach this today,” Mati says. “I have a lot of friends who like to sit with a glass of whiskey on their yacht and not think about anything. Because everything’s good – they have money and they don’t want to think about the world’s tough, worrisome problems.
“So, yes, Holocaust memory is a complex issue, but I think that a person is, among other things, a refinement of all the personal and collective memories he carries with him. You can decide that memories are a burden for you, you can decide that it’s complicated to be a Jew, so why should you continue to be one. The question is who you are and what load do you want to carry. For me, my load is a part of me, and giving it up isn’t an option for me. I’m giving kids the choice of whether they want to see this story or not. We are telling a story and giving children access to it.
“Every generation thinks the generation after it is shallower, but that’s nonsense, of course. I didn’t go to the Education Ministry, to the government or to institutional bodies – from that perspective I’m totally avant garde. I said, here’s a story and you’re invited to watch in the most democratic way possible. I’m telling you that it exists, and whoever wants to can come and see it. It’s open to everyone.”