Opinion

Let TikTok Creators Pretend to Be Victims of the Nazis. It Strengthens Holocaust Memory

The noisy campaigns against young social media users role-playing and hashtagging the Holocaust are misplaced. From TikTok to Instagram to YouTube, a new, creative and necessary kind of testimony is emerging

Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann
Tom Divon
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TikTok creators present their 'POV' (point-of-view) first person videos for the #HolocaustPOVchallenge in which users pretend to be Holocaust victims
TikTok creators present their 'POV' (point-of-view) first person videos for the #HolocaustPOVchallenge in which users pretend to be Holocaust victimsCredit: Twitter
Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann
Tom Divon

"I'm sorry it took me so long to take down the video and i ask that u can forgive me as i made a HUGEEEEE mistake and learnt from it."

With these words, TikTok creator Kayley_y apologized for participating in the #HolocaustPOVchallenge on TikTok, the world's most popular video-sharing platform. 

Since its global launch in 2017, TikTok has spellbound millions of enthusiastic young users while building a social media environment, in which those users can create and broadcast their own original content, mostly starring themselves. 

Over the last four years, TikTok’s size and reach has made it much more than its vision - "to inspire creativity and bring joy." It has become a social-political battlefield that ignites cultural trends that constantly migrate from its social media space right into the heart of public discourse. 

The last TikTok trend which hit the online controversy spotlight was the #HolocaustPOVchallenge. TikTokers posing as dead Holocaust victims, some wearing the star of David on top of ragged clothes and  covered with makeup mimicking cuts, bruises, exhaustion and malnourishment, film themselves telling the viewer how they were murdered. 

TikTokers explained that their motivation was to "educate people" and "share these stories" because of their importance. "I have always been interested in the history of the Holocaust and just wanted to make a creative video informing people about it," said one 17-year old creator. 

This form of expression could have been considered as an authentic interest in and concern about timely political issues by young teenagers (Generation Z), often accused of being narcissist attention-seekers, using the digital environment native to them.

But instead, "adult" voices in the public debate about the video clips immediately tagged their artistic/political efforts as "offensive," and their creators, as "disgusting human beings."

It is not surprising that amid the loud, rigid public outcry, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial immediately classified the videos as "hurtful and offensive" and Yad Vashem harshly criticized the trend as a disrespectful trivialization of the Holocaust. Some Jewish creators called the challenge out as "trauma porn." 

Thanks to its predominantly young users and unconventional usage forms, TikTok remains enigmatic territory for many educators and academics. Confronted with a phenomenon like the #HolocaustPOVchallenge, many historical experts and memory agents automatically tend to delegitimize any possibility of serious intent, or for a serious conversation. 

This is exactly why nobody asked for the TikToker's intentions, although it should be common sense that we cannot understand such social media trends without considering their particular context. And indeed, those controversial clips were not made out of thin air. 

They were made as part of a popular TikTok trend: POV (point-of-view) videos, a new form of expression in which the creator interprets painful social-political events, such as sexual abuse, racism, school shootings, and various historical tragedies, in a creative and playful but also highly engaged way.

Screenshot of a TikTok creator's video for the 9/11 #challenge, where users pretend to be one of the victims of the terror attacks on the Twin Towers
Screenshot of a TikTok creator's video for the 9/11 #challenge, where users pretend to be one of the victims of the terror attacks on the Twin TowersCredit: Twitter

These POV videos became part of TikTok's behavioral codes long before the Holocaust challenge. 9/11 was another historical event that TikTokers commemorated with similar clips throughout the platform, and those had also caused public discomfort. TikTokers "played" real, actual phone calls of those who were involved in the attacks, filmed against the backdrop of the twin towers, and exhibited simulated burns. 

It’s clearly true that TikTok presents a sharp contrast to traditional practices of Holocaust commemoration. But these videos indicate a new form of mediated Holocaust-related testimony: an intensive, abstract, even surreal account that circulates rapidly on TikTok feeds, calling for digital response and participation.

For this new form of "testimony," TikTokers adapt the common social media language - hashtags - as an attempt to negotiate different practices of (digital) Holocaust commemoration. 

#challenge is one of the most popular hashtags on TikTok, acting both as an engine for its often competitive side, but also a significant vector of user awareness for contemporary burning issues – a form of digital noticeboard and campfire. Users added the hashtag #fyp ("for you, partner"/"for your page"), encouraging others to generate their own POV Holocaust "moments" as a way of dedicating time to content they regard as meaningful. 

Are these videos superficial? Are they desperate calls for attention? They might be. But critics should pause before they slam the creators, or their intent, as "disgusting." 

POV offers a new perspective which, perhaps counter-instinctively, does not primarily focus on the creators like in many selfie videos, but on the event itself. By dint of those primacy of the event, indexed by hashtags, the concept of #HolocaustChallenge could yet be a genuinely effective way of raising awareness to testimonies about historical atrocities. And yes, obscure as those videos might seem, they are, after all, in principle profoundly humanistic due to their characteristics. 

Performing Holocaust testimonies is not an act exclusive to the social media environment.

As Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein demonstrated in their documentary film #uploading_holocaust (2016), a narrated compilation of YouTube videos uploaded by Israeli teens visiting the sites of Nazi concentration and death camps in Poland, role-playing is a common educational method. During study trips to camp memorials, students are asked to read from highly emotional extracts from testimonies or diaries, and to express narratives through dancing, singing, and acting. 

Trailer for the 2016 documentary #uploading_holocaust

In context of "official" ceremonies like these, the idea of performance, of pretending to be a Holocaust victim, seems quite natural and legitimate. But because the digital environment is less formalized, less familiar for some, such performances are harder for us to digest. Or perhaps, it all depends on whether an online performance is sanctioned by an educator, guide or institution - or not.

Last year, the Instagram account @eva.stories caused similarly controversial reactions, that presented the story of a 13-year old Hungarian Jewish girl that was murdered in Auschwitz in the popular Instagram "Stories" format. However, after a momentary media debate, this project was actually endorsed by the public and triggered a vital discussion on how to integrate Holocaust commemoration into contemporary social media lives.

More recently, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam launched the "Anne Frank Video Diary," where an actress playing the eponymous diary-writer talks straight to camera in five-minute clips based entirely on diary extracts which are then uploaded as episodes to YouTube.

Acknowledging the evolving field of digital expression and participation might help to better understanding those new commemoration initiatives. Without question, some of the TikTok videos demonstrated bad taste. Some just wanted to piggyback on to a recent trend, and had no discernably serious intent. 

Nevertheless, many of the POV videos proved something quite valuable in times of growing distance to the past: interest, dedication, creativity, and the effort to render memories from the Holocaust relevant in the (media) presence of the fourth and fifth generations after the events. 

But our harsh reactions most likely alienated young TikTok creators like Kayley_y. A genuine intent to learn and share, and yes, with a lapse in taste, doesn’t deserve denunciation. Knee-jerk and concerted public condemnation runs the grave risk of spoiling our most important educational asset: her curiosity. As the Anne Frank House director, Ronald Leopald, notes: "Once we start to condemn right away, that’s the end of conversation." 

For Kayley_y, participating in negotiating and integrating Holocaust commemoration and her online life on TikTok has turned into a "HUGEEEEE mistake." TikTok has even blocked users from searching for content related to #HolocaustChallenge.

Unfortunately, this sends a clear and depressing message to the platform’s 800 million active users: The Holocaust is one of the topics you do not TikTok about.

Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann is a Film & Media, Visual Culture, and German Studies scholar in the Department of Communication and at the European Forum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He holds a Ph.D. from the Freie University in Berlin and was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Yad Vashem and at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. He is a member in the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Action, "Visual History of the Holocaust: Rethinking Curation in the Digital Age." Twitter: @te_hartmann and @Digital_VH

Tom Divon is a Media & Culture researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and a preliminary research student at the Department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research examines the use of social media for commemorating the Holocaust among fourth and fifth-generation users. @TomDivon

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