A young girl and her grandmother are crowded onto a train carriage. Gasping for breath, they are fighting back the tears, trying in vain to stay calm although they are plainly petrified. In the background, they can hear the sound of dogs barking.
Then the doors close and darkness descends.
The train jolts and starts moving. The girl and her grandmother have begun their final journey, towards Auschwitz.
This harrowing scene has been watched by 1.6 million people in the last few days. And had it been shown as part of a movie or high-budget television series, it would most likely have been uncontroversial.
The clip, however, was part of a series produced for Instagram, prompting some commentators to fret that it trivialised the Holocaust. How can you tell the story of the Shoah surrounded by pictures of cakes and cats?
But this is pure snobbery from people who still regard social media as shallow and superficial. Not only does the Holocaust belong on Instagram, but in many ways this new art form is more powerful and impactful than previous attempts to memorialise the Holocaust.
“Eva.Stories” is based on the diaries of a 13-year-old Hungarian Jew, Eva Heyman, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. The series — the brainchild of an Israeli hi-tech billionaire — consists of more than 70 short clips, shot as if they were recorded by Eva in real-time on a mobile phone, and uploaded to her social media account.
The initial footage feels flippant. Eva dances with her “BFF” and giggles as she buys an ice cream. But then reality starts to intrude. Eva resents the Nazis watching her in the street. When her mother and grandmother sew a yellow star onto her coat, she throws a teenage tantrum. Paradoxically, as Eva becomes more stressed, she becomes more human and easier to warm to. Then her cousin is deported to Poland (“What is she going to do in Poland, without a suitcase,” Eva wonders to herself). Finally, Eva is too.
There is no original plot, no clever character arc. Just gritty realism, shown through the eyes of one very normal, but increasingly panicked teenager. I found it simultaneously compelling and almost too difficult to watch, because it was so easily relatable.
Some claim this project is in bad taste, because it is on a light-hearted platform and has been heavily promoted. Several commentators have said they would prefer the funds for this project to be used on education in the classroom.
They feel, it seems, that the Holocaust can only ever be talked about on “serious”, dignified channels, and treated with detachment and reverence.
That may have been a valid case in years gone by, when the memory of the Holocaust was relatively fresh and when there were still many survivors who could describe their experiences. Back then the challenges were to make sense of the Shoah, to ensure the facts were known and to honour the victims, many of whom were personally known and remembered.
As time goes by and we enter a new era of remembrance, the challenge becomes more basic: simply to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. To make people care deeply about historic events which may seem no more real to them than the Norman conquest.
This takes raw emotion, not facts, logic and reverence. And for this, the format of Eva.Stories — essentially a dramatic reconstruction, full of immediacy and urgency — is perfect.
In this case, the medium matters. Instagram and other social media channels might seem lightweight, but they have genuinely changed the way people consume information. This generation prefers short bites, real-time footage and personalisation. Strong emotions make content more likely to go viral. If we are serious about ensuring the Holocaust is never forgotten, we must adjust our communication strategy accordingly.
Indeed, rather than looking down on Eva.Stories because it uses modern formats and story-telling methods, we should be learning from its success. Over the past week, Israel has been bombarded with hundreds of rockets, sending hundreds of thousands of citizens scrambling for the air raid shelters in fear for their lives. It has a good tale to tell. Yet it has found it hard to capture hearts and minds. Activists focus on correcting facts in news reports, and repeatedly argue that any Western country would have responded to the bombardment similarly. It’s all about logic.
Where is Israel’s equivalent to Eva.Stories?