“Heil Hitler!” That was the last thing I heard from my teacher’s mouth the first day of class of fourth grade. I just turned 9 years old. It was April 1938 in Nazi Germany.”
I have read this passage in my grandfather’s diary countless times and tried to imagine the terror he must have felt the day he was expelled from his classroom for being a Jew. May 2 was Holocaust Remembrance Day, but in my family, I am reminded all year about the atrocities of the Holocaust because we felt them firsthand. But what about everyone else? Then yesterday, as I found myself scrolling through Instagram — something I do 500 times a day — I stumbled upon an account with an image that read “What if a girl in the Holocaust had an Instagram?”
The account is @eva.stories, a video diary performed by actors based on the true story of Eva Heyman, a 13-year-old Jew living in a Nazi occupied Hungary. Her life is one of a normal teenage girl, complete with a loving family and a crush on a boy. But as we watch the 15-second videos saved in the highlights of Eva’s Instagram account, her regular life completely transforms. Her family is forced into a ghetto and eventually on to a train to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp, where she is then murdered.
The people I talked to about this account had mixed reactions. One said it was “poor taste” and “sad” that this is how we have to educate young people about the Holocaust. Another said it would “dumb down” the complexities of the Holocaust for “mere entertainment.” For me, Eva Stories allows viewers to see the Holocaust in a more relatable way, a person’s life rather than an historical event that happened more than half a century ago on a different continent. The moment Eva gets expelled from her classroom, I thought about what happened to my grandfather, only this time I could visualize it in a way that made it feel raw. Eva uses her phone the way my friends and I do, to share moments of her life.
On its face, the medium through which her story is told trivializes its meaning, which has driven the criticism around the work, but to me it is the familiarity and accessibility of the platform that makes it so brilliant. In contrast to a documentary film or lengthy scholarly text that few people would actually watch, the short, swipeable videos make the story easy to digest, easy to share, especially as attention spans are getting shorter.
People have always been concerned about the way people communicate the horrors of the Holocaust. The criticism that Eva Stories trivializes the real horrors of the Holocaust was the same argument used to oppose the reading of The Diary of Anne Frank is some school districts in America. When I was 7, my mom began teaching me about the Holocaust through a comic book called Maus, by Art Spiegelman. It depicts the author interviewing his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The work employs postmodernist techniques and represents Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. Deciding to use the medium of the comic book to spread his family’s story to young people, the author was criticized and struggled to find a publisher at first. But it eventually became highly influential, selling more than a million copies, translated into many languages and winning prestigious awards, including a special Pulitzer Prize. Many couldn’t fathom using a graphic novel to teach kids about these atrocities, but in my case I literally felt the terror and feared the Nazis, asking my mom, Where are we going to hide when they come back?
Yes, we should still read historical biographies, and schools should require curriculums focused on teaching the Holocaust. But the reality is that people are forgetting, as a New York Times study showed last year, so why not embrace newer technologies to find an innovative way to tell their stories? This is especially urgent as the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust are passing away. We must ask ourselves: How can we continue to educate and keep their memory alive, in a way that is inclusive, accessible, and accurate?
Perhaps I am more open-minded about this new type of interactive storytelling because of my job at Refinery29. I produce the series Taboo and Sex Ed Game Show for our Snapchat Discover channel, which are both meant to educate and entertain. The series that we make present complex topics about sex education, identity, and taboo topics for a young audience through a medium that is easily digestible and inclusive. That’s the parallel with Eva Stories: In the U.S., most students are required to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but The Diary of Anne Frank is not required reading (the only country where is required is not surprisingly, Germany). So Eva Stories fills in that gap and becomes a path to conitnuing the education of the Holocaust to future generations. And don’t we want future generations to remember?
Just last week, there was a shooting at a synagogue in San Diego, which came exactly six months after one of the worst atrocities against the American Jewish community that left 11 people dead in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. It’s hard to wrap my head around these catastrophic events because I thought anti-Semitism was a thing of the past. Apparently not. To me, this is why Eva Stories is not just about one girl’s story, or one historical event. It’s about the dangers of othering, rampant xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. It’s about telling stories like my grandfather’s so they can live on. It’s about remembering history so it does not repeat itself, and honestly, sometimes it feels like we are really close to repeating it.