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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read more at Haaretz.