Eva.stories and the Holocaust on Instagram

I watched the Eva.stories Instagram Story this morning. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth watching. The New York Times explains the background, so I won’t cover that territory. But I had a few thoughts that I wanted get down while they’re fresh.

When I saw the account pop up on my feed last night while I was scrolling, I laughed. I thought the idea just seemed a bit corny, even a little tacky. I thought it was some kind of satire, something along the lines of Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, which comically reimagines Anne Frank having survived the war. I wasn’t offended by the notion of an Instagram Story, I just didn’t see how they could really pull something like that off. If anything, it made me think about the recent Broad City episode where Abby and Ilana trek the length of Manhattan and document it as an Instagram story. The medium seemed well suited to a sitcom, but I guess I was skeptical about how that would translate to telling a Holocaust story.

In the end, I think the producers of Eva.stories did a good job. Obviously, you have to suspend your disbelief, like watching pretty much any film or representation of the past. And obviously, it’s a ridiculous notion that a teenager in a ghetto during World War II recorded their experience as an Instagram Story. But all it’s really doing is telling the story of teenager in 1944 using the vernacular of teens today. In some ways, it seems an obvious way to tell the story. It’s probably true that Instagram Stories are analogous to diaries from earlier eras. It reminds me of the outrage over Justin Bieber’s entry into the guestbook at the Anne Frank House, in which he wrote that he hoped she “would have been a Belieber”. I mean, it’s obviously narcissistic, but isn’t it also true that teenage girls are his demographic? Wasn’t it simply a way for him (and perhaps his fans) to connect to her story?  

It’s obvious what the criticism of Eva.stories will be: Instagram is frivolous, it cheapens the memory of the victims, it’s a slippery slope to other forms of trivialization. One critic, cited in the New York Times article, complained that it was in bad taste. He wrote: “The path from ‘Eva’s Story’ to selfie-taking at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau is short and steep, and in the end all those tut-tutters and head shakers will join in telling us about the lost and disconnected youth, devoid of values and shameless.” Here’s the thing though: selfie-taking at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau exists already. If anything, it is old news, as this now-defunct Israeli Facebook page, With My Besties at Auschwitz, shows. I’ve been discussing this with my students for years, and it’s just the latest iteration in discussions about how to incorporate new technologies and media into telling stories of the Holocaust. There’s a similar discussion over the development of Holocaust survivor holograms, a way to help people feel connected to survivors once they’re no longer around.

Social media is an important way people communicate and tell stories today. If we’re really concerned about waning knowledge about the Holocaust, why not meet people where they’re at? Why not take advantage of the media that young people engage with every day and speak to them in their own language? How many would have read a published version of Eva’s diary? And why is this any different or worse than a dramatization in film or television? If we’re going to bemoan the fading of Holocaust memory, surely we need to take advantage of the tools available to communicate these stories. And perhaps it can serve as a model for telling all kinds of other difficult histories.