Commemorating from a distance: the digital transformation of Holocaust memory in times of COVID-19


Source: Media, Culture and Society


The transfer, transformation, and transition of analogue forms of Holocaust memory into social media environments have established new ephemeral and often experimental forms of digital commemoration. The restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic on institutionalized Holocaust commemoration thereby intensified the development of distinct modes of social media memory. These modes imposed by digital projects made it possible to replace “social distance” with mediated proximity.

While before the pandemic technologically advanced projects such as three-dimensional survivor holograms dominated the emerging field of digital Holocaust memory, in the wake of COVID-19 social networks have gained significant importance. Experimental approaches adopted the culture of commenting, sharing, and creatively remixing content on social media for commemorating the Holocaust from a distance. Utilizing user-friendly technology, such as mobile phones and social media applications, many innovative projects experimented with digital aesthetics and formats such as the selfie perspective, video diaries, and influencer videos, and combined them with established approaches to teaching and learning about the Holocaust. Virtual tours, digital videos, interactive photo series, and virtual memorials refined Holocaust memory in the digital sphere, even though they will replace neither the personal encounter with the historical sites nor with Holocaust survivors nor, after they will be unable to transmit their memories live (or with the help of Zoom or other digital communication platforms), with their digitized testimonies.

These formats of social media memory, however, establish a commemorative sphere that integrates a variety of digital media modes, with all cases discussed in this paper especially proving the central role audiovisual media play for digital commemoration in times of COVID-19, as well as the privileged position of image- and moving-image-based social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and to a certain extent Facebook as well, which became virtual commemorative spaces for hashtagged social media memory. This use of particular hashtags interrelates digital commemoration projects and active forms of user engagement so they function as links between memorials and users. Furthermore, the hashtags provide an organizing principle that allows the mapping of a clearly virtual commemorative space composed of posts and contributions from a variety of institutionalized and private social media users.

This development in the area of Holocaust memory has also implications for media memory in a broader sense and other memories affected by the pandemic. Its transforming power in the field of digital communication is not exclusive to Holocaust commemoration. Other museums and memorials had to cope with the same challenges and developed similar digital solutions like Holocaust memorials in response to the restrictions that followed COVID-19. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic reevoked forgotten memories like that of the Spanish Flu. Finally, commemoration of COVID-19 as a significant event in human history already started during the spread of the pandemic. Virtual “Corona Archives” as well as collections of testimonies related to the experience of COVID-19 were established in real time. Many of the social media initiatives commemorating the Holocaust in times of the pandemic however, do not only refer to the past or the particular memory of the Holocaust but also to their formative presence. Hence, to a certain degree they are also part of a future memory of the pandemic.

Most significantly for the development of Holocaust memory the digital activities of museums and memorials moved beyond the established use of social media platforms for their commemorative purposes. While before the pandemic, memorials mostly used social media as a forum for disseminating digitized documents and visual content from their collections, they now experimented with new forms of transferring, transitioning, and transforming established commemorative forms and media formats into social media environments. Such translation of analogue modes into digital environments reduces distance and strives for a sense of presence at the sites of Holocaust commemoration in times of social distancing. This development will certainly have an impact on the “new normal” after the pandemic. The successful format of virtual tours will most likely remain part of several memorials’ programs, especially as they offer the opportunity to focus on special-interest topics and help to engage distant audiences. Zoom and other digital video communication tools might continue to serve as platforms for meeting survivors even after a successful cure for COVID-19, especially because they provide a solution to the limited mobility of the aging witnesses. Interactive educational videos offer new possibilities for reaching out to new generations of users and help them prepare themselves online for their visits to the actual sites. Hashtags will also be used in the future to connect social media users to commemorative events and memorial sites. However, these formats also set new standards for engaging with the history of the Holocaust in the digital age. They offer models for creative engagement with historical sites and sources in times of increasing distance from the past events. In combination with new on-site formats, such as augmented reality applications or self-guided tours based on geo-tagging, social media in the wake of COVID-19 has become a connective commemorative space for Holocaust memory.

Updated: Jan. 13, 2021