A tap-dancing Holocaust survivor turning into a viral sensation on TikTok may sound like a parody, a dark satirical sketch dreamed up by late-night comedy writers.
But for Gidon Lev, 86, appearing on a site more known for kids dancing is no joke. His unexpected popularity on TikTok has become a way to fight Holocaust denial and antisemitism. In recent months, this has meant repeatedly calling out other TikTok users who compare measures to control the spread of the coronavirus to Nazi tactics.
Speaking as someone who wore the yellow star that is being likened to mask requirements and vaccine mandates, Lev has posted a raft of videos featuring slangy captions like “THIS IS NOT OKAY” and “Holocaust Survivor NOT HAVING IT with Holocaust-Vax Comparers.” Oh yes, and trendy music booms in the background, TikTok style.
“I totally reject the comparison,” he says in an interview. “Keeping people healthy and saving them from suffering is the exact opposite of what the Germans did. I want to explain to these people that forcing us to wear a star wasn’t for the purpose of identifying us; it was to dehumanize us. Doing something to try to save people’s lives with a vaccine is completely different.”
Although Lev only made his TikTok debut in mid-July, his videos have racked up over half a million likes, more than 40,000 followers and millions of views. Some of his much-younger fans are asking if he can be their “TikTok grandpa.”
He has agreed enthusiastically, embracing the title on his bio on the site, which includes the monikers “Holocaust survivor,” “Official #TikTokGrandpa” and “Author w/my J.”
“J” is Julie Gray, 57, Lev’s life partner and co-author of his memoir, “The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist.” She’s also his collaborator on the TikTok account “The True Adventures: Gidon & Julie.”
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The tone of Lev’s videos, shot and edited by Gray in their Ramat Gan apartment, range from poignant to righteous to silly; the impish Lev shares his many passions and hobbies. In one clip we see him tap dancing. He also says: “After the Holocaust I was too poor for dance lessons. So I made my own tap shoes out of scrap metal and taught myself!”
In his most popular video, with over a million views, he dances with TikTok-style hand motions, answering “3 questions a #Holocaustsurvivor gets asked all the time.” In the background, the well-known instrumental “The Magic Bomb (Questions I Get Asked)” drones on.
With his popularity on the site growing, the pair are hosting live “Ask a Holocaust Survivor Anything” sessions, in which he offers his wisdom to curious young TikTok users.
“We’re both passionate about innovating Holocaust education – and all of the ramifications of Holocaust denial and antisemitism,” Gray says. “We want to make it more accessible, we want to make hate and antisemitism not cool on the platforms that are making it cool,” she adds, pointing to those protesting against the COVID vaccines and QAnon prosyletizers who are active on social media.
“Somebody said to me on TikTok ‘Never mind the haters, they’re crazy.’ I answered, ‘You know who people said were crazy in the 1920s? The Nazis,” she recounts.
Lev’s TikTok adventure began as a marketing exercise to publicize the memoir the couple wrote and published. Lev was born in Czechoslovakia and was imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp at age 6, where he remained until he was 10.
He and his mother, who was also in the camp, survived; he was among the 92 children who spent time at Theresienstadt to survive the Holocaust. Almost all of the 150,000 children sent there were murdered at Auschwitz, Treblinka and elsewhere.
He lost 26 members of his family in the Holocaust, including his father, who was killed at Auschwitz. After the war, he and his mother made their way to the United States, then Canada. In 1959, he moved to Israel, where he was twice married – once divorced and once widowed. He has six children,15 grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
After his wife died, he distracted himself by starting work on a memoir, since throughout his life “every time I would tell my stories, people would tell me I should put it all in a book.”
In 2017, he was referred to Gray as a potential editor. A veteran writer and editor who has also worked extensively in advertising and the film industry, Gray eventually met with Lev. The collaboration blossomed into something deeper despite the age gap – on social media, she refers to Lev as her “Loving Life Buddy.” Their unlikely personal and professional connection is woven into the book, which frames Lev’s life story with Gray’s perspective.
Although Gray is a published author, she hit a wall when trying to find a publisher. “I pitched to about 50 agents and kept hearing the same reactions,” she said. “Most often, they would tell me that the topic of the Holocaust was too depressing. The second most common answer was that there were too many books about the Holocaust and it just wouldn’t sell.”
She quickly decided that publishing independently was the way to go. “Gidon was, after all, getting older. He was 82 when we started the book, he was 85 when it came out," Gray says. "I didn’t have time to keep pitching and trying to persuade agents and publishers. What he wanted was to hold it in his hands, and I wanted to make that happen.”
At the same time, neither wanted his story to be a vanity publication, purchased only by family and friends, so Gray carefully crafted a strategy to push sales of the memoir when it came out in June 2020.
While she knew she faced a challenge, she didn’t know about the complications of publishing a book aimed at an overseas market during a pandemic.
“On the one hand, COVID made conventional book tours and book signings impossible. I knew that would be a challenge anyway because of Gidon’s age, but the pandemic made any kind of event impossible,” Gray notes.
While she missed that personal connection with readers, the flip side was the advent of Zoom. “We were able to do more events virtually than we would have otherwise,” she says.
The Kirkus Reviews called the work “a remarkable tale of survival and unexpected kinship,” and “a vitally important Holocaust story eruditely captured.” But sales were slow the first year. Gray actively promoted the book on social media, but she wasn’t satisfied.
“Facebook wasn’t that useful, it was preaching to the choir – we sold a lot of books to our friends,” she says, not to mention to people who were already interested in the Holocaust.
But the book “wasn’t reaching its target audience: young people who we know are shockingly ignorant about the Holocaust, according to poll after poll.”
It was this feeling that drove Gray, in a “let’s try anything” moment, to put Lev on TikTok.
“I thought, What if I could totally subvert expectations – put an old man on a new platform?” she explains. “I thought of TikTok as an avenue to the kids who won’t be going to Holocaust museums or taking a history course. It also seemed like a good way to reach out to younger people who aren’t Israeli or Jewish.”
With her film background, TikTok didn’t faze Gray, and she was a quick study when it came to the TikTok argot, the hot hashtags and the best choice of music.
“If a 60-second video on TikTok with a bunch of hashtags and music by Lizzo is what it takes to reach people, I’ll do it,” Gray says. “Because the message we’re delivering is so important.”
The marketing gambit has worked. From selling a few copies of the book each month, they have sold several hundred in weeks, with many TikTok users asking where to order it. “One boy told us happily that his mom agreed to buy it for him; we were thrilled,” Gray says.
They climbed the Amazon sales chart by thousands of slots and, even more significantly, Lev has been invited onto podcasts, Zoom panels and TikTok Live sessions with platform “influencers” – a development Gray hopes will propel sales even more.
She has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction on the platform: “Ninety-eight percent of the comments we get are overwhelmingly loving and affectionate,” she notes. True, a small percentage of antisemites, QAnon people and “anti-vax” trolls appear in the comments section, posting “misinformation, disinformation or cruelty.” But Lev’s fans take them on.
Overall, she says, it has been “an interesting litmus test” on how people view the Holocaust and react to seeing a survivor.
Lev and Gray sometimes wrangle over the balance between lighthearted videos that reflect Lev’s sunny personality and those that pack more serious messages.
“Sometimes I prefer he didn’t do the silly, goofy ones that he loves,” Gray admits. “But we definitely don’t want to be doom and gloom – that’s not who Gidon is.”
For Lev, TikTok stardom is another adventure in his journey, and enjoying it to the fullest is part of the seize-the-day philosophy he wants to share with his new virtual grandchildren.
“My saying is: ‘You don’t get the life you choose. You get the life you get – and then you have to deal with it.’ Life is important. And we get to live it only once,” he says.
“What we do with it depends on us and the choices we make, and I’d like people to know that even when they’re disillusioned or having a hard time, there are solutions. We can see the upside of the downside of our circumstances. It all depends on us,” he adds.
Though he admits that he enjoys the random silly challenges on TikTok, the video that touched him while shooting it was one where he holds a dialogue with his frightened 6-year-old self.
In it, he looks up and in a childish voice asks himself, “Am I going to be OK?”
Returning to his grandfatherly persona, he answers: “Yes, you are going to be OK. You’re going to be hungry, you’re going to be scared, you’re going to suffer. You’re going to be frightened. But you will survive.”
His child self then asks why this is happening; he explains that the Nazi conquest happened because there were “too many evil people with too much power and not enough people who stood up against them and fought back.”
Finally, with a broad smile, he responds to a query from his child self on whether he will be happy when he grows old.
“Yes! You are going to have children and grandchildren. And you’re even going to write a book! And you will teach the people of the world what the Holocaust was all about.”