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This June, before heading to a (blistering hot) Berlin, just a week earlier I found myself discussing the topic of respectful behaviour at memorials and sights of tragedy with friends. Our discussion was prompted by a recent tweet we had seen from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The tweet included pictures of visitors to the camp posing on the famous train tracks. The account (@AuschwitzMuseum) accompanied these photographs with the following caption:
"When you come to Auschwitz remember you are at the site where over one million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths."
Seeing this message really made me think. I wondered whether the tourists featured in the tweeted photographs really knew what they were doing. Was their behaviour deliberate? I certainly don’t want to think that would be the case. Considering how many similar photographs are posted to social media by visitors every day, I find it very hard to believe that so many would go to a sight of tragedy or a memorial to be disrespectful on purpose. After all, the pictures included in the tweet are hardly unique, a quick search on Instagram pulls up a barrage of similar snaps. The more likely explanation therefore, I believe, is a combination of two factors. Firstly, a growing obsession with sharing our lives on the internet and secondly, a genuine naivety from tourists regarding what makes for appropriate behaviour at such places.
There are many examples of memorial culture in Berlin, but for this article, I will be focusing on the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. This memorial was opened in 2005 and resides in the centre Berlin. Upon first approaching the site, a visitor may not even realise they are looking at a memorial. However, as one draws closer, the size of the large, individual grey blocks (stelae) make for an intimidating sight. Personally, I find that the memorial encourages each individual visitor to draw their own conclusions from what they see. It appears that the memorial has been specifically designed not to evoke a certain image. This arguably purposeful ambiguity is exactly what I believe encourages visitors to think for themselves. Thus, the memorial helps the visitor to play a more active role in engaging with the past. From my own personal impression, I found that the memorial was very effective at making me feel belittled. This, I believe, helps to emulate the powerlessness many Jewish people would have felt under the Nazi regime. Furthermore, as you walk into the complex, the concrete stelae quickly towers over you, and before long, I felt lost. I was also impressed at how soon I felt isolated within the complex. I also interpreted the many stelae to be people, the various heights ranging from children to elderly people, serving as a reminder that no Jews were safe from persecution under the Nazis. Each of the stelae are also different heights, which I see as a reference to each individual victim.
Thinking once again however to the title of this article, whilst in Berlin, we discussed a 2017 project by Jewish-German writer Shahak Shapira entitled "Yolocaust." I think this piece really challenges us to seriously consider how we chose to behave at memorial sights. In the words of Shapira, the aim of his work was to "show people what they were actually doing, or how others might interpret what they were doing." Essentially, Shapira wanted people to understand how posing for pictures at the Jewish memorial can be very disrespectful.
Yolocaust involved Shapira selecting selfies and photographs people had posted posing at the memorial. He then fused the images with some of the most upsetting pictures taken in Nazi concentration camps. Thus, creating the illusion that the people were posing with the victims. All of a sudden, these photographs look incredibly disturbing. To my mind, many of the visitors included in the pictures most likely did not consider that they were doing anything wrong. We live in a world where almost everyone engages with some form of social media. It is easier than ever for us to share pictures of the places we’ve visited with our friends, family, and the world. It is understandable how in the quest to achieve a social media worthy shot, thinking about the implications of one’s actions can be forgotten. This is exactly what the Yolocaust project highlights. It draws attention to the fact that those who have posed for the images have forgotten, or simply not taken the time, to consider the atrocities that the memorial commemorates.
The Yolocaust project wasn’t without controversy, with many critics branding the piece as too graphic, and calling the project an overreaction. However, Shapira claims that almost all of the people featured in the project understood his message and removed the original posts from their social media. One man whose picture was used by Shapira wrote that his original Instagram post showing himself jumping on the memorial was supposed to be a joke amongst friends. However, after the picture was edited to show him jumping on a pile of Jewish corpses, he said that he realised how inappropriate his photo was and that the project had made him see the error in his ways.
I think visiting memorials is very important. In the case of the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, the site serves as a permeant reminder of an event that should never be repeated and crucially, it stands to honour the victims. When visiting a memorial, I believe that whilst taking a photograph of what you are seeing is acceptable, posing for a photograph can more often than not be a sign of disrespect. This is because by posing for a picture, fundamentally, you are placing the focus of the image of yourself and not on the significance on the place you have visited. I personally believe that the Jewish memorial should be a place of reflection, education, and somewhere to be respected. Whilst Yolocaust can be considered an extreme way of pointing out disrespectful behaviour at memorials (and other sites of tragedy), the project reached well over 2.5 million people. Sometimes, it takes a powerful message to teach a powerful lesson and Yolocaust is arguably the ultimate example of this.
But despite the wake-up call provided by Shahak Shapira’s Yolocaust, have we really learned our lesson? Not all of the tourists featured in the project took down their original photographs; and furthermore, Shapira himself received death threats for his work. Thinking back to the start of this piece, some visitors to Auschwitz clearly still have issues respecting the tragic site. Furthermore, HBO’s series Chernobyl has sparked a renewed interest in the disaster. I myself have seen photographs of tourists visiting the Exclusion Zone posing in hazmat suits and holding Geiger counters. Unfortunately, it seems that many still have much to learn when deciding what snaps are acceptable to use for social media clout. Before posing at a memorial or site of tragedy, please remember that your Instagram likes are not more important than respecting the dead.