Tweeting the Holocaust: The Perils and Perks of Using Social Media to Remember the Shoah

Combative, divisive arenas like Twitter and Facebook are increasingly being used to inform and educate people about the Shoah, presenting some unique challenges

Clockwise from left: Faces of Auschwitz on Twitter; Auschwitz towel sold online; Auschwitz museum on Instagram; Eva Stories on Instagram; Auschwitz museum on Twitter; a post about Holocaust denial.
Screenshots from Twitter and Instagram

Clicking “Follow” on a Twitter account may not seem like the most effective way to memorialize the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But in a high-profile effort, the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum set a goal of reaching 1 million Twitter followers by January 27 – the date when the Red Army entered the notorious death camp in 1945.

Originally, the museum’s campaign aimed to get to 750,000 followers by the anniversary date. But with the surge in anti-Semitic incidents around the world over the past year, celebrities and social media influencers leapt on the bandwagon and joined the campaign. After hitting its first goal by November 30, it upped the target to the million mark.

The feed’s million or so followers will regularly view the photographs and stories of victims who passed through the gates of the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Most, but not all, are Jewish. Most were killed there, but there are also stories of survival. There are frequent “This day in history” posts on important dates. The art and writing of Auschwitz victims and survivors are posted and promoted, and other important Holocaust-related news is retweeted and amplified.

The feed – along with the memorial and museum’s Facebook and Instagram accounts – is the handiwork of Pawel Sawicki, the museum’s press officer since 2007. Over his 12-year tenure, his role has extended beyond the traditional duties of guiding journalists and writing press releases, and into the online arena.

Sawicki clearly remembers the internal debate in 2009 over whether it was appropriate for the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial to create a Facebook account – something no Holocaust museum or memorial had yet done, he says.

“We were cautious and viewed it as an experiment. We were worried that it would be seen as offensive to put our materials in a place where they would appear alongside people’s family photos and cat videos,” he tells Haaretz in a phone interview. “I was ready to shut it down at any moment because of that. But we noticed that people were searching for information about Auschwitz on Facebook – and what appeared was often inaccurate. And so we asked around if people wanted us on social media, and the answer was yes.”

Today, it is a point of pride for Sawicki that the museum’s social media accounts have a combined total of more than 1.4 million followers. He sees social media activity as playing a key role in fulfilling his institution’s mission. “We know there are billions of people who have never visited any Holocaust-related sites or museums. And now there is something we can do about it,” he says. “We can reach and educate people who for many reasons cannot be here.”

The Auschwitz museum’s Twitter account stands out from other Holocaust sites’ accounts because it goes beyond pure education, doesn’t shy away from controversy and frequently grabs headlines by acting as the “Holocaust police.”

Pawel Sawicki.  “We can reach and educate people who for many reasons cannot be here,” he says of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum's social media presence.
Marek Lach, Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum

Sawicki has called out visitors for inappropriate picture-taking – asking them to stop – and shamed U.S. Republican congressman Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana after he posted a selfie video in an Auschwitz gas chamber.

He has campaigned against online giant Amazon and other retailers selling printed images of Auschwitz on items like Christmas ornaments, bath towels, shower curtains and coffee mugs. He criticized John Boyne, the author of the best-selling novel “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” asserting that the book should not be used in Holocaust education because of factual inaccuracies.

And when a conservative American columnist, Kurt Schlichter, wrote in 2016 that any Jewish supporter of Barack Obama and John Kerry “would have made a fine helper at Auschwitz,” Sawicki chided that “the tragedy of prisoners of Auschwitz & their complicated moral dilemmas which today we can hardly comprehend should not be instrumentalized.”

Innovative approach

Sawicki is far from alone in harnessing social media for Holocaust education. In addition to the multitude of museums, academic institutes and advocacy organizations now active online, there are new players.

Ahead of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day last spring, a new innovative approach that drew international attention was “Eva Stories,” which transformed the diary of a Holocaust victim by reimagining it as an Instagram story. Funded by high-tech mogul Mati Kochavi, the project hoped to reach young Israelis by bringing the Holocaust to the place where their attention was focused.

Kochavi conceived the project after undertaking a study in which it was found that just 2.7 percent of the people discussing the Holocaust in Western countries were under the age of 30. Out of 12,778,533 posts addressing the Holocaust across social media platforms in Western countries, only 347,485 were posted by those aged 30 or younger, the study revealed.

Screenshot of the Instagram homepage for Eva Stories, which has 1.4 million followers.
Screenshot from Instagram

“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,” Kochavi explained.

Not everyone agreed with him. The project drew some criticism, most prominently from musician and educator Yuval Mendelson, who wrote in Haaretz (in Hebrew) that the project was “a display of bad taste, being promoted aggressively and crudely.” He added that “a fictitious Instagram account of a girl murdered in the Holocaust is not and cannot be a legitimate way” to commemorate the devastating tragedy.

But the response to “Eva Stories” was, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin clearly viewed it favorably: On Tuesday, he announced he would ask the world leaders attending Israel’s World Holocaust Forum event at Yad Vashem this week to write their reflections on the Instagram and Twitter accounts of “Eva Stories,” in order to assure the children of the world that “there will never be another Holocaust.”

Beyond the pale

Noam Tirosh, a memory and communications scholar at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, says any debate about whether the Holocaust belongs on social media is now “irrelevant,” since “it’s there, and it’s not going anywhere.”

“As long as we have new technology and new mediums to communicate, initially people will be asking how can we possibly represent something about the Holocaust in this new form.”

Tirosh has a reminder for those who deem the medium inappropriate. “If you look back, you will see that the criticism people had about the [1978] television miniseries ‘Holocaust’ or [1993’s] ‘Schindler’s List’ is very similar to what was said about ‘Eva Stories.’”

It wasn’t long ago that fictionalizing the atrocities of the Holocaust onscreen was deemed beyond the pale. Elie Wiesel wrote of the miniseries “Holocaust” (in the New York Times) that it was “untrue, offensive, cheap,” an “insult to those who perished and to those who survived,” and “transforms an ontological event into soap-opera.”

Tirosh says he is “optimistic” about the way in which digital and social media platforms “offer new opportunities for new people to represent the Holocaust in different ways” – beyond the “traditional gatekeepers” like academia, museums and advocacy organizations.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance shares Tirosh’s outlook. On a webpage devoted to Holocaust education and social media, it notes that while “Holocaust educators display a reluctance to engage fully with social media,” it cannot be avoided.

“Social media is so prevalent … that it cannot be ignored in Holocaust education or anywhere else. The important question, therefore, is not about the promise or pitfalls of the social media; rather, it is about how best to adapt Holocaust education to this new format, using its potential to limit any potential challenges,” asserts the IHRA.

Tirosh believes that “Eva Stories” should serve as “an example of how new media can be used to help engage new audiences. He suggests that educators should focus on how to optimize the use of the medium. He believes they need to not only provide materials, but also to “be there and be part of the follow-up and the reactions. The next project on Instagram should include putting educators in the comments – and host live discussions as the story unfolds.”

Alongside social media’s role in educating and memorializing the Holocaust is its use in calling out inappropriate use of Holocaust imagery or treating it disrespectfully.

Sawicki says he has had to learn to do so judiciously, and to choose his battles carefully. For example, he tries to be sensitive to young people who may not be aware that the selfie they snap while visiting Auschwitz will offend when it becomes an Instagram post. But he is harsher on institutions, as in the case of the Christmas ornaments for sale on Amazon and other retailers peddling Auschwitz shower curtains.

A Christmas ornament with a photo of Auschwitz on it listed for sale on Amazon.
Screenshot / Amazon

Daunting task

A more daunting task is countering the tidal wave of Holocaust denial and revisionism that has exploded across social media platforms, primarily from anti-Semitic individuals and organizations. While the battles of the 1980s and ’90s have seen the retreat of Holocaust denial from academic settings, the internet – which offers the cloak of anonymity – is a free-for-all.

Sawicki has an ironclad rule: he never debates Holocaust deniers. Instead, “we block them, we report accounts. Sometimes they are taken down and sometimes they aren’t,” he says.

In recent years, debate has raged around the responsibility of social media platforms to counter Holocaust denial. Facebook has controversially stood by a policy that opposes removing “lies or content that is inaccurate – whether it’s denying the Holocaust, the Armenian massacre, or the fact that the Syrian government has killed hundreds of thousands of its own people.” However, it will “take down any content that celebrates, defends, or attempts to justify the Holocaust.”

Sawicki sees his museum’s social media feed, which he describes as being full of “faces, facts, documents and stories,” as a form of “vaccine for people who are exposed to Holocaust denial” – an extension of the stronger “vaccine” which he believes a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial provides. “That is why it is so important for us to be on social media,” he explains. “If we said, ‘We will stay away from social media because that’s where the deniers are,’ we would allow them to control the narrative in that space. This is a fight we shouldn’t let go of.”

The IHRA agrees, writing on its social webpage that “trends such as Holocaust denial, diminishment and trivialization are rampant on the internet, and using social media has the potential to introduce these topics to students and give them unwarranted prominence.” To counter this, “it is imperative that users have access to and know how to recognize trusted sources and appropriate images,” it adds.

Far worse than Twitter trolls

But there is one aspect of the fight where Sawicki is in a more problematic position: Pushing back against what Tirosh and many others see as government-sponsored Holocaust revisionism.

“Government forces are far more powerful and much more frightening than any Twitter troll,” notes Tirosh. As he sees it, “The Polish government uses [social media] to deliberately falsify the narrative of the Holocaust, and to control the discourse and create misremembrance.”

As an employee of a state-run Polish museum that toes the line on the country’s controversial Holocaust law, which makes it illegal to say that the Polish nation or people participated in any Nazi war crimes or collaborated with the occupying force, Sawicki has been accused of being complicit with such efforts.

Ariel Sobel wrote in Haaretz last year that “Auschwitz is rewriting Holocaust history, one tweet at a time.” She complained that the museum account “challenges tweets that note that Polish anti-Semitism predated and contributed to the atrocities, and pushes the line that indigenous Polish anti-Semitism has no relevance to Auschwitz.” She added that the museum is “promoting a dangerous narrative, pushed by Polish nationalists, to expunge their record of anti-Semitism at a time when Jew-hatred is on the rise in the country.”

Last month, Sawicki clashed with U.S. Department of Justice attorney McKay Smith after the museum blocked a Twitter account belonging to a group called “Women Fight AntiSemitism” when it posted a tweet (since deleted) charging that the museum’s “sham of an account” was “forging untruths and Holocaust denial.”

Sawicki acknowledges the difficulty of discussing “very complicated history” in an environment that lends itself to misinterpretation, lack of context and a tendency to see things in “black and white.”

He emphasizes that he is not only criticized by one side of the debate.

“Yes, we receive tweets that we are whitewashing the story of the Holocaust and revising history [in favor of] the Poles,” he says. But he gets just as many, he says, from Polish nationalists and anti-Semites, “who tweet that we are controlled by the Jews, that we are a ‘Judeo-cosmopolitan’ institution and that we minimize the suffering of the Poles.”

Ultimately, Sawicki draws a positive message from all of the criticism: When you are getting slammed from both sides in the combative world of social media, “I figure it means we are probably getting it right,” he concludes.