It was August 2020. Tom Divon, 34, who researches social media users’ behavior, was working out in the gym. As he would often do, he browsed through TikTok, the ubiquitous social media network which attracts may teens and is known for its popular – and sometimes dangerous – challenges. Suddenly, something caught his eye.
“I see this report about kids on TikTok dressing up as Holocaust victims as part of a challenge,” says Divon, a faculty member at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Communications and Journalism. Since his doctoral dissertation is about Gen-Z behavior patterns on TikTok and the way that teenagers encounter the Holocaust, he knew this peculiar challenge was something he couldn’t miss.
The videos he watched seemed unusual, even for a wild and unpredictable platform like TikTok. With gloomy music, a black-and-white filter and jumpy texts, teenagers – mostly girls – were seen looking like victims of serious violence: with makeup that resembles blood on their faces, dressed in prison garb or donning kerchiefs on their head.
The girls in these TikTok videos either depict themselves as someone who was murdered in Auschwitz or another camp or do some “time travel” that takes them to a concentration camp, where they plead for their lives before an imaginary Nazi who screams at them, are led to the gas chambers or show the yellow patch worn on their clothing.
“The challenges on TikTok don’t come with a guide who tells you what you have to do,” Divon says. “From watching, you understand the nature of the challenge and you bring your own interpretation and creativity to it.” Divon informed his university colleague, Dr. Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann, a lecturer in film studies, German studies and visual culture, of this strange trend. They realized that they had to act fast.
“Every challenge that gives off a whiff of scandal quickly runs into heavy criticism,” Divon says. “This could lead to the videos being independently deleted, or for TikTok’s algorithms to quickly work to censor this content.” As predicted, opinion pieces soon appeared denouncing the phenomenon and calling it “trauma porn” and “an offensive trend.”
Divon and Ebbrecht-Hartmann found and saved more than 300 videos created by teenage girls from around the world, but they never imagined then that this bizarre challenge would become the cornerstone of creating a creative new discourse about commemorating the Holocaust.
“We wanted to trace the videos and break down the strategies of communicating the Holocaust that characterized them,” Divon says. “But this was not easy. Many of the girls who created these videos incurred a barrage of condemnations, some even received death threats and described the whole experience as traumatic.
Those who did consent to speak about it surprised the researchers. Divon says, “They said, ‘I am a content producer, I am not a random user. And when I come across a challenge that deals with such a serious subject, there’s no way I’m not going to leap at it.’ To them, it was important.” And, of course, he adds, one cannot ignore the pursuit of “likes,” shares and comments that plays a significant role on every social network, particularly on TikTok.
As an academic, what was your impression of the videos?
“The music and movement repeat themselves, but each story was a little different. There was one user, for instance, who went to talk to her mother as soon as she came upon the challenge and asked her to tell her about the victims.
'Every challenge that gives off a whiff of scandal quickly runs into heavy criticism'
There was another girl who remembered her class visit to the Holocaust Museum and tried to recreate in the video the look of starvation and emaciation that she saw in a picture there. As Israelis, it may be hard for us to see and hear this. It sounds cheap and superficial to us, but it was still interesting to see 14-year-old girls, most of whom had no connection at all to Judaism, being intrigued enough to ask questions and to learn.”
In the course of their research, Divon and Ebbrecht-Hartmann discovered that #Holocaust videos have become very popular, and that their content is quite varied – spanning everything from that notorious challenge to videos by anti-vaxxers who see themselves as a persecuted population like the Jews were at the start of the Holocaust. “It’s become a real Wild West. But we also saw that this platform, which attracts so many young people, also has vast educational potential.”
The two contacted the CEO of TikTok Germany, who is also responsible for TikTok Israel’s content team, and informed him about the Holocuast trend on the social network. “Ever since that conversation, TikTok has been working very hard to improve its algorithmic awareness regarding the cheapening of the Holocaust and Holocaust commemoration,” Divon says. The pair also proposed putting together a seminar to teach schools and museums how to communicate with the young generation through the language of TikTok.
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“As academics who study Holocaust representations on all of the social networks, we couldn’t help but notice that while institutions like Yad Vashem and various Holocaust museums and the like have a dominant presence on the more established social networks, they avoid TikTok like the plague,” Divon says. The seminar had its inaugural session six months ago in Berlin. It has been held since then every two months on Zoom, with 13 institutions participating, including museums at concentration camps like Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, as well as the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
“They were terrified,” Divon says. “Since TikTok is a platform that enables you to react in the middle of a video, or to create your own interpretation of existing videos, they were always afraid that users would exploit their content negatively. But in the current reality, in which survey after survey warns about young people’s ignorance about the Holocaust, the German institutions understand that the only way to reach young people is to speak their language.”
What does that mean, exactly?
“To talk about the Holocaust, but in a way that’s a little more playful – not in a disparaging or disrespectful sense, but in the interactive sense. That means being colorful, rhythmic, filled with special features and movement in a way that ignites curiosity, that prompts viewers to ask questions, pushes them to visit the institution’s profile page and maybe – and this is the ultimate goal – to visit the institutions themselves. It’s already a major achievement if the video gets a response or a share, if someone says – ‘Wow, I didn’t even know you existed, and I didn’t know that things like this happened in the Holocaust.’”
The Pink Triangle
One of the participating institutions in the seminar which quickly made use of TikTok’s advantages is Neuengamme, a lesser-known concentration camp not far from Hamburg. Thanks to its TikTok profile, neuengamme.memorial, which is impressively run by a group of zoomers (Gen-Z’ers), some of the videos they created that previously had just 70 views suddenly leaped to 100,000 or even 200,000 views within six weeks. “The zoomers who work at Neuengamme quickly understood how to adapt their content for TikTok,” Divon says. “In order to gain popularity, a TikTok profile has to show that it ‘speaks’ with its audience. So at Neuengamme they try to respond to every question that viewers ask during a video. If, for example, a viewer writes to them that they had no idea there were so many kinds of badges, they’ll film a video that explains about the pink triangle. At the same time, TikTok’s algorithm is fueled by provocation, so as soon as there’s’ a video that contains words like ‘Holocaust’ or ‘Nazi,’ the algorithm understands that it has viral potential and starts to promote it.”
Why do you think so many of the people who work at these places are from Gen-Z?
“It’s really interesting that a lot of the workers and volunteers at the memorials, concentration camps and museums are zoomers. We met quite a few of them. We found them to be deeply dedicated young people who are very interested in education generally, and in the Holocaust in particular. This was heightened even more during the pandemic; TikTok became a space with a good amount of serious or ‘heavy’ content, about political protests or mental health, for instance.”
Divon adds: “The amazing thing is that no one who joins TikTok is ever able to change it; it obliges every new user to behave in accordance with its spirit and its set of values: mischievousness, playfulness, lots of features and bold color and especially a fast pace. They say the medium is the message, and it’s even truer when it comes to TikTok.”
We’re talking about “mischievousness” and “playfulness” in the context of profiles of concentration camps or Holocaust museums.
“No question that for such institutions, joining TikTok is a highly unorthodox act. And they are quite aware of this, of course. It’s very scary to film a TikTok video from the area of the gas chambers or the prisoners’ bunks. For us, all of these places are like sacred cows.”
As part of their study, Divon and Ebbrecht-Hartmann lay out the different types of interaction that young TikTok users have with the Holocaust. One type of interaction is “commemorative,” deriving from their desire to declare their commitment to this memory. For instance, one girl used the opening snippet of the Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy” (“I remember, I remember”) and had it play over a rapid succession of images from the Holocaust. Her video sparked a trend, with other videos following a similar format being created to commemorate other outrages: Black victims of violence in America, transgender people who were murdered; Japanese who were interned in camps during World War II, and many more.
“Gen-Z is very political and has strong views about injustices that are occurring in the present,” Divon says. “In order to deal with this and share their feelings, they also make use of narratives from the past, mainly of trauma and injustice. As part of this, they bring up the Holocaust. But the most striking thing is that a lot of people on TikTok refer to the Holocaust in order to link it to current experiences of anti-Semitism, racism or nationalist zealotry. This opens up a window to empathy: videos that highlight stories about euthanasia in the Holocaust, LGTBQ persecution, racism against minorities, Gypsies and other types of victims.”
And all this dealing with the narrative of the Holocaust is happening in “the language of TikTok.” For me, at least, this combination mainly makes me uncomfortable.
“The study refers to TikTok, particularly when it comes to topics like the Holocaust as ‘the performance of caring.’ TikTok is truly a type of cringe theater that captures the unpleasantness, the discomfort, the state of being aghast and all the feelings you described. Gen-Z does a lot of things like this that we perceive as absurd. These are acts that are not understood by me or you, but this is its language and this is how it communicates what it is feeling. There’s also the matter of context. It’s uncomfortable when someone is standing before us on TikTok in a prisoner’s uniform, but when I was a kid, I also wore a prisoner’s clothing for a school ceremony. They put a yellow star on me and I dressed up as a Holocaust victim, and it was socially acceptable. So the context is very significant, and TikTok has a very bad reputation.”
In the past year, Holocaust survivors themselves have also gotten involved in TikTok. The first to open a TikTok profile about a year ago was Lily Ebert, a 98-year-old survivor from the United States, with the aid of her devoted grandson Dov. “She has a regular segment where she answers viewers’ questions,” Divon says. “Her goal is to relay knowledge and educate in a playful way.
She sheds light on subjects you can’t talk about anywhere else, such as how girls and women dealt with menstruation during the Holocaust.” Another survivor who lives in Israel, Gidon Lev, manages his profile with the help of his wife Julie. Lev started the profile to protest the videos that compared COVID-19 vaccines to the Holocaust. “Someone posted a video in which she said that she felt like she was in the Holocaust, and Gidon posted a video in response in which he basically reprimanded her,” says Divon, who also advises Lev. “There are many survivors who see things and feel compelled to say, ‘That’s unacceptable. Don’t do that.’ Gidon fights the distorted narratives. He identifies where there is controversy and hatred and tries to pour love on it.”
What you are doing as academics is unusual. You’ve moved from behind the scenes to centerstage, and you are changing the reality that you are writing about.
“I’m so engrossed in it that I don’t always notice. Just recently, I was telling my grandmother a story about a Holocaust survivor and she suddenly said: ‘You know how proud your grandfather would have been of you?’ I’m so deep within this thing that I hadn’t stopped to think about my own deep emotional connection – my grandfather, who’s no longer alive, was a Holocaust survivor and went through a horrendous experience, too.”