Selfies and the Holocaust: How Millennials Find Meaning

Grandchildren of survivors try to grapple with the genocide of their forefathers the only way they know how: through themselves.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Youths hugging each other during the March of the Living in Poland.
Youths hugging each other during the March of the Living in Poland.Credit: AP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Last week, in quite the media gaffe, the Israel Defense Forces called upon soldiers (and young people in general) to upload pictures of themselves (selfies) with a “Holocaust survivor who is special to you - a family member or a friend” to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #WeAreHere.

Some sympathized the army’s way of commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, grasping its stated intention of “bringing our past closer to everyday reality”. Many more saw it as bad taste. It’s not hard to see why: posting a “selfie” with a survivor may promote Holocaust remembrance on some level, but it also risks making a mockery of tragedy, taking the most obvious manifestation of narcissism - the selfie - and pairing it with genocide.

The IDF’s campaign, said the critics, renders Holocaust survivors as nothing more than “props,” a tool for propaganda and (as all selfies go) self-attainment.

But while the IDF’s attempt to connect with younger audiences was perhaps a bit misdirected, it was only a mimic of what’s already been going on in the social feeds of young Israelis. On Sunday, IDF-approved hashtag or no, the Facebook feeds of almost every young person in Israel will fill with photos of their friends together with their Holocaust-surviving grandparents. Others will reminisce about fond memories of said Holocaust-surviving grandparents, and explain how the Shoah helped them become better people in their own lives.

Struggling with 'officialdom'

Far from their ceremonious, stately elders, third-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors have struggled in recent years to engage with the “official” forms of Holocaust remembrance. A survey held by Meida Shivuki last year found that 18-29 year olds in Israel, in general, “respect” Holocaust Remembrance Day, but avoid related content on TV, radio and news sites.

What they have done is try to find their own ways of commemorating the day. And being "millennials," they did it the way they know best: through themselves.

Millennials are often accused of being extremely self-involved, and while this criticism is more prejudice than fact, at least when it comes to Holocaust remembrance - it might be on the spot: young people have discovered (or invented) the “I” in Holocaust.

Take, for instance, one of the biggest Holocaust remembrance-related trends of recent years: grandchildren tattooing their grandparents’ concentration camp numbers on themselves. Originally an unusual act reserved for few eccentrics and mostly turned down by Israeli tattoo artists, in recent years it has become a bona fide trend. Last year, advertisers at the advertising firm Baumann Ber Rivnay even went as far as to hand out temporary tattoos of the numbers of real Holocaust survivors to youth movement, colleges and universities.
Placing their sheltered selves in the shoes of their grandparents, it seems third generation millennials could relate better to Holocaust remembrance if they were able to cast themselves as antagonists.

Or take the “remembrance in the living room” trend of recent years: private gatherings of young people commemorating the Holocaust in an intimate atmosphere. Usually, these nights are divided into three: first a “talk” by a Holocaust survivor, and then an “artistic” portion of song/ dance, then discussion. What happens to the Holocaust survivor, you ask? Usually he is just driven home after his allocated slot, maybe after receiving a “certificate of honor”. The Holocaust survivor, then, becomes a sort of entertainer, “performing for his supper”.

Going viral

Then consider the dozens of viral Facebook posts, where young people are outraged (as they should be) by the horrible conditions in which Holocaust survivors live in. Caricaturist Nikko Watts parodied these posts last year, with a highly-viral post about a young man that helps a poor, elderly Holocaust survivor with his groceries and follows him to his house, where he is shocked to find his ramshackle abode.

“I asked him his name, he said it was Shimon, or Shmuel, I forget. I immediately took out my iPhone and stated taking pictures of him and his apartment. The old man was confused. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked me. ‘Don’t worry,' I told him, ‘I’ll make sure everyone will know the horrible conditions in which you live,” Watts wrote.

It seems that in their desperate attempts to connect to something that is so far removed from their everyday lives, Israeli millennials have mostly found… themselves.

All of these things above, after all, are not about really about Holocaust survivors (50,000 of whom live in Israel below the poverty line; many more suffering extreme loneliness and a variety of mental and physical illnesses). They’re not even about the Holocaust. In our attempt to bridge the unbridgeable, to make the unspeakable relatable, we’ve mostly managed to make the Holocaust all about us.

There are also many notable example of the exact opposite: instances where young Israelis, through social media, have made great acts of kindness towards survivors. In 2012, for instance, young students in Be’er Sheba cleaned the house of a Holocaust survivor following an enormously-viral Facebook post by a young man who met her and was shocked to find that she was lived in a state of poverty so great that her water and electricity were cut, her house so squalid it made national headlines.

Also, to young peoples’ credit, it’s not like it’s their fault: their parents didn’t set the best example. Using the Holocaust as a tool for self-realization is a longtime tradition in Israel, ever since its early days, where the Holocaust was used as a means to further political ends but the survivors themselves were derided, mistreated and neglected, and up until today where many of living survivors still suffer abject poverty but the Holocaust itself is used to justify controversial political acts.

Maybe, in order to relate to the absolute horror of the Holocaust, there is no real way to avoid making it at least a little about ourselves. Maybe, in order to even faintly grasp the absolute horror of the “other planet” Israeli writer and Auschwitz-survivor Ka-Tsetnik spoke of, we have to try and bring it down to earth, even at the risk of diluting it. Maybe it’s not so bad to see the way it might project on our lives, as long as we remember it.

But please, don’t just post a selfie of yourselves with a Holocaust survivor. Just ask him how he is, and pay attention to what he says.

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