opinion

As a Jewish woman, this is what I want people to know about the social media 'Holocaust challenge.'

Another day, another 'disturbing trend' coming out of social media.

Except today, it feels personal. I stare at my phone in disbelief. I gulp. My heart beats faster and louder and I'm not sure what to think. Is this... distress? Yes, this must be what it feels like to be triggered, from some place deep in your body you know is there, that lies dormant, until you feel the need to speak from it.

I'm just an ordinary Jewish woman living in Australia, with European Jewish heritage. I come from a family of Progressive Jews, was educated at a religious school and raised by the many hands of a Jewish community.

As a woman in my thirties, I'm not religious or particularly observant, but I do see my heritage as a fundamental part of my self. And it's a shared self - which is why a lot of other Jews might be staring at their phones in disbelief today, too.

This week, a trend has gone viral on TikTok where creators pretend they are Holocaust survivors, speaking to their followers from heaven. Some wear makeup to look like burns and bruises and sunken cheeks, and tell improvised stories of how they died in the Nazi death camps. Most of the videos are accompanied by the Bruno Mars single 'Locked Out Of Heaven'.

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Some creators wear Stars of David, the symbol Jews were forced to wear to signify their religion under Hitler's rule, and many of the videos are set to a sombre black and white background, meant to replicate scenes of concentration camps.

They use the hashtag #holocaust and some reference #darkhumour. One video I came across was tagged #annedidntstandachance, referring to the plight of Anne Frank. Where this sits on a scale of stupid to just plain anti-Semitic, you can be the judge.

The clips slide into a new TikTok genre of 'point-of-view' videos, where creators act out scenes from a first-person perspective, directed by a common challenge. They're also part of a broader movement of what's been dubbed 'trauma porn'.

Speaking with Insight, a 17-year-old TikTok user from New Jersey who took part in the challenge said she imitated a Holocaust victim to raise awareness. Her aim was to "educate people" in an attempt to "share these stories". 

I had a conversation with my colleague Adam, also Jewish, to sense-check my own abject reaction. Could some of these videos possibly come from a place of compassion? And if so, how do we feel about that?

"On one hand, I think the Gen Z audience of TikTokers doing this 'challenge' are being typical teens - misguided and insensitive," he shared. 

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"It's just that they have an outlet for the world to see nowadays. An outlet that's based on an attention economy."

Adam was quick to point out that doesn't excuse them. But I'm interested in what makes a young person think this is a good idea. Are they doing it for shock value? Or jumping on a bandwagon of a kind of performative advocacy?

The result is the trivialisation of a history that is much more complex than they can comprehend, or care to. They filter their videos in sepia tones, a way of saying, 'Look, I'm being historical.' 

Some users taking part are Jewish, seemingly doing it to honour a relative or their own family history. But did their relatives grant them permission? Do they have a right to act out their stories?

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Whatever their reasons, they're inexcusable. There is no way to condense 70 years of intergenerational trauma into a seven second video, let alone reconcile it.

It is a pain felt deep in the collective conscience of an entire community. Many older members of that community refuse to talk about it; the effects are too recent, the pain too visceral. 

Thinking about this sends me in a time warp back to my maternal grandparents' living room, when I was doing a primary school assignment on my family tree. I had an old tape recorder out, capturing my Nanna's words on a cassette to share with my class. Her relatives fled Poland before the war. I can imagine they were anxious leaving their homes; I don't know much more. I wouldn't pretend to.

Next month will be Yom Kippur, a time where the community comes together in synagogue (this year, over Zoom) in remembrance and mourning for those we've lost.

There's an aura that hovers around every Jewish meeting, whether it's Yom Kippur, a big celebration or weekly Shabbas dinner. A feeling of strength through adversity; a mutual connectedness to our history. We remember where we've been, how we were persecuted... how we've survived.

On No Filter, Mia Freedman interviews Eddie Jaku about his incredible survival story. 

A tone-deaf social media movement won't bring awareness. What will is education, because it starts with understanding. Recently I read Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku's memoir, The Happiest Man on Earth. All my life I've been reluctant to immerse myself in the horrors of the Second World War, but with Eddie's perspective - his infallible spirit - narrating the course of his own history, I wanted to know. I needed to learn. I think we all do.

In his book, Eddie speaks of the comfort he felt when he connected with a group of fellow survivors, brought together by the Sydney Jewish Museum in 2011. "We were for people who had been through the experience of the concentration camps, who knew what it was to face death every day, to smell the crematorium on the wind as your friends were murdered all around," he writes.

"I cannot describe how it feels to be in the company of a person who was there, who can feel what you feel the same way, who knows deep down why you react to things the way you do. Other people may try, and that is admirable, but they will never really understand because they have not had this experience...

"It is something only we can understand, those who survived the Holocaust."

Feature image: TikTok. 


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