If you were to Google “Eva Stories,” you’d find headlines for articles about a social media project intended to help young people relate to the Holocaust. And several of these pieces specifically address the controversy surrounding this project, decrying the use of Instagram, emojis, selfies, hashtags, and filters — whatever the heck that is — to teach about the Shoah.
Not to sound like an old fogie, but with regard to this criticism, I say “poppycock.”
Eva.stories, based on the diary of Eva Heyman, a real 13-year-old Jewish girl from Hungary who was deported to, and killed in, Auschwitz in 1944, asks, what would the Shoah have looked like through Instagram?
Using Heyman’s diary as a guide, Israeli father-and-daughter team Mati and Maya Kochavi posted 70 short videos over the course of 24 hours on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. A cast and crew of approximately 400 filmed the scenes in the Ukraine using vintage set pieces, including tanks that the Nazis would have used during the war. Costs for the project were reported to be in the millions, and the production quality is impressive.
And Eva’s Instagram posts, which take place between Feb. 13 and sometime in June as she is loaded onto a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, exhibit a typical, relatable teenager. An aspiring photojournalist, she hashtags most of her early posts #reporterlife; her birthday gift is a pair of high heels; she and her best friend, Annie, dance as if no one is watching; and she swoons when her boyfriend, Pista, buys her an ice cream cone.
But even the good times are sprinkled with signs of the dark days to come. A passerby on the street mutters “Dirty Jew,” and one night she overhears her grandfather and step-father whispering about the likelihood that Germany will invade Hungary. In one terrifying scene, she and her friends witness the Hungarian officials take Eva’s grandfather’s pharmacy “off [his] hands,” as Jews are no longer allowed to own businesses. When, on her birthday, Eva’s cousin is deported to Poland, Eva writes “Saddest birthday ever.”
Soon Germany conquers Hungary, Nazi soldiers walk into Jewish homes and commandeer any items they want, and the once close-knit and happy family begins to fray under the stress. Perhaps the most haunting scene in the entire project is one in which Eva has a full-on tantrum when attaching a yellow star to her jacket for the first time, saying it’s ugly and her classmates will laugh at her for wearing it.
Of course, it only gets worse — much.
In the age of social media, it’s virtually impossible to avoid flak; had Abraham been alive today his Twitter feed would have been flooded with tweets like, “Are we really going to learn about morality from a man who tried to sacrifice his own son? #RamKiller.”
Some criticism of Eva.stories was absurd, in my view, such as logistical complaints: Why didn’t the Nazis confiscate Eva’s phone? How did she charge it when the room they were forced to stay in the ghetto didn’t have electricity? What kind of teenager would post about her secret crush? Please remember that Eva.stories is only based on a true story, and accept some poetic license.
The only objection to Eva.stories that’s worthy of discussion is whether using emojis, hashtags, and other social media tools to tell the story minimizes the horrors of the Holocaust. Besides not wanting to disrespect the memory of the six million, dialing down the seriousness of the Shoah makes it more likely for a new generation of Jews to let their guards down and abandon their posts as the lookouts for the next potential genocide.
Although this sentiment makes good sense as a general rule, it does not apply here. To the contrary, after watching the entire series, even a relatively old person such as myself who neither uses, nor really understands Instagram, can see that Eva.stories has the potential to reach more people who haven’t been educated about the Holocaust since the 1993 release of “Schindler’s List.”
The Holocaust ended almost 75 years ago, an eternity for young people. The possibility of them hearing about the Shoah from the mouth of a survivor is becoming increasingly rare, and their minds are already numbed by the violence of mass shootings and raging wars. We say “Never Forget,” but our collective memories are quickly fading, and we must find new avenues to teach our children about the Holocaust before it becomes a hastily turned page in a textbook, rather than an oft-repeated cautionary tale of a systematic effort to wipe our people off the Earth.
If innovation were a third-rail for Holocaust education, we’d never have films like Kirsten Dunst’s “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” the play “Anne Frank & Me,” or Art Spiegelman’s hugely influential graphic novel “Maus.”
There are important new projects that teach young people about the Shoah, such as “Names, Not Numbers,” with middle and high school students profiling survivors and working with filmmakers to produce a documentary on their lives. Golda Och Academy in West Orange will be screening theirs on May 28 at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy will screen their documentary the following day on their Livingston campus.
But few communities are privileged to have the resources we do, and a compelling story on social media is accessible to a far larger and broader audience. Teenagers watching someone who speaks like they do, who goes to school, who has a loving family, who dances to music in her living room, who dreams about having a career — all in color, by the way — and who loses it all through a series of freedoms revoked in a few months, that’s relatable, and it’s compelling no matter how old you are. Anyone who values Holocaust education should watch, encourage their children and grandchildren to do the same, and applaud the individuals responsible for creating this medium of story-telling so that others will follow their lead.