On January 27 last year, Holocaust memorials and museums around the world were commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. No one could have imagined that shortly after, memorial sites would face one of the greatest challenges for public commemoration in their existence.
This week, as the world prepares to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a year after the COVID pandemic closed historical sites around the globe, Holocaust memorials, museums, and national and international institutions, are still challenged by the cancellation of perhaps the most iconic and resonant rituals of remembrance: gathering and commemorating at the actual sites where the mass murder was perpetrated.
There’s been a flowering of innovative commemoration initiatives providing virtual access to memorial sites, and ways of commemorating from a distance via social media platforms and other online tools. Memorials and other Holocaust-related institutions intensified their activities on Zoom, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube most particularly between March and May, the period in which most of the Nazi camps were liberated 75 years ago.
Though many memorials could utilize existing digital assets and tools, they also experimented with new practices of remote-remembrance, such as ceremonies broadcasted live on social media platforms, online lectures, and virtual visits to historical sites and exhibitions.
The COVID-triggered digital "boom" has resulted in online exhibitions, collections (permanent and new), live-broadcast of performances and ceremonies, memorial tours, podcasts, educational activities, and highly accessible commemoration initiatives.
LIVE from Bergen-Belsen
International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2021 will mostly, still, take place online. This year's activities combine existing forms of digital commemoration, which preceded COVID-19, and innovative formats developed in response to the pandemic. Among those online formats are the more established Yad Vashem "IRemember Wall" and the Auschwitz Memorial’s 360 degree virtual tours, now joined by new social media projects such as the historical information app of the Buchenwald Memorial, and the Mauthausen Memorial’s educational hub on YouTube.
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The LIVE Instagram tours offered by the Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen Memorials are perhaps the most intriguing, if not the most discomforting for those used to more traditional commemoration practices.
A notification pops up on your phone: "Bergen-Belsen is going LIVE." But this isn’t the usual Instagram advertorial. Directed by a “navigator” filming with a mobile camera, with a guide offering explanations of the historical context, plus photographs, maps and animated graphics, users thousands of miles away can "walk" through the remains of a concentration camp. They can’t freely move around and inspect objects or areas that catch their particular interest, as they’re bound by the field of view of the cameraman, who is directing their gaze.
But there are compensations: the live tours enable users to express a rich range of responses, from (virtually) raising hands to ask questions on chat, or share their thoughts through comments and emojis. The navigator is in constant dialogue with the users online and communicates questions to the tour guide, thereby maximizing the users' self-inscription, their embeddedness, into the experience.
As commemoration is fundamentally based on shared communal activities, the significant challenge of contemporary remembrance in the wake of the pandemic is the creation of the feeling of togetherness. Thus, establishing new virtual spaces of commemoration, memorials constantly have to explore efficient and engaging ways to communicate with a global audience.
A significant tool for connecting the public to Holocaust memory online are hashtags. Those short characteristic phrases, highlighted by a hash sign (#) as a form of indexing and sharing, have proved to effectively interrelate dispersed content on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or TikTok.
Last year, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, a number of memorial sites, predominantly from Germany (such as the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial), established a joint hashtag to consolidate and amplify popular engagement and interconnect digital activities in disparate sites.
The hashtag #75liberation was launched shortly before International Holocaust Remembrance Day last year. During the following three weeks, several memorials shared content related to the camps’ liberation using this hashtag and additional keywords. The traffic of these posts was intensified by English and German language Twitter bots, automated programs that identified the hashtags and interacted with the platform and users by retweeting related posts.
What was originally intended as support for the manifold commemoration activities planned by memorial sites for 2020, turned into a crucial asset in constituting new communities gathering online as the pandemic struck, facilitating grassroots participation in and contribution to virtual forms of remembrance.
Until June last year, 3,800 messages were distributed by the two bots on Twitter. Additional memorials as well as newspapers, politicians and activists started using the hashtag. It also migrated onto different platforms and marked postings on Facebook and Instagram.
Alongside trending Holocaust-related hashtags such as #WeRemember by the World Jewish Congress, newly established phrases such as #RememberingFromHome, and hashtags also used by other cultural institutions and museums such as #ClosedButOpen, the #75liberation hashtag established a significantly interconnected virtual space for commemorating the Holocaust across platforms and countries.
Virtual lights in the darkness
This year’s Holocaust commemoration will also have to rely on the connecting ability of hashtags. As a digital commemoration tool, the hashtags #HolocaustMemorialDay and #HolocaustRemembranceDay interconnect the online activities of various institutions worldwide, among them the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum and the UK Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
This year's trending hashtags, cognizant of the need to offer a way to participate in commemoration in lockdown, will also relate to hybrid commemoration: Bridging both virtual and real-world actions.
#LightTheDarkness is an online campaign that asks social media users to light a candle in real life and put it in their windows on January 27. Using the same hashtag, the Royal Wootton Bassett Academy’s Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Program launched a "Be The Light in the Darkness" challenge that contains physical as well as digital tasks.
Memorials in Germany joined the topic and launched the German language hashtag #lichtergegendunkelheit. They will light up buildings at their sites and project documents, pictures and other sources on the walls, while sharing related content online.
Pre-empting the Remembrance Day, on January 1st the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials created the blog #otd1945 ("On this day") that documents the conditions in the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps 76 years ago on a daily basis. The postings are also shared through the memorial’s social media channels.
Although no one would have guessed that Live Instagram tours from Bergen-Belsen or any other concentration camp would become so popular, mainly due to the noninstitutional nature of those digital environments, COVID-19 transformed our familiar rituals of Holocaust commemoration.
The abundance of digital initiatives, which integrated remote forms of remembrance into our social media lives, successfully managed to merge digital media with core elements of commemoration. The COVID pandemic has acted as a catalyst for the future of Holocaust remembrance, with memorials establishing a genuine, often interactive dialogue with users and potential visitors.
Hashtags, posts, stories, Zoom conversations, all these diverse formats became instrumental for online commemoration during the pandemic. And they are here to stay.
Those tools and forms are no longer perceived as indicators of flat, narrow, shallow social media interaction, but as a fundamental element of commemorative work. It is in the power of a single hashtag to mediate, share, spread, and intrigue generational curiosity in experiences from the past.
Filling the virtual space with remote-memories will be an increasingly important, interconnecting element of Holocaust commemoration in the digital age.
It is ironic that a pandemic often characterized as solely fostering personal isolation and social atomization offers us such a key lesson about finding community, history and solidarity.
Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann is a Film & Media, Visual Culture, and German Studies scholar at the Hebrew University
Tom Divon is a Media & Culture researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and research student at the Hebrew University