November 12, 2019

‘Eva.Stories’ Uses Instagram to Connect Today’s Youth With a Holocaust Story

Ever since cell phones became a staple in our lives, those who work in Holocaust education and Holocaust memory have grappled with how to combine social media and Holocaust education in a meaningful way. Conferences are held each year on the topic of technology, education and memory with leading scholars and museums. 

Holocaust memorial sites have flirted with using cell phone technology in their exhibits. Some have optional apps you can download to enrich your knowledge, while cities such as Amsterdam have released apps with maps of places pertinent to Anne Frank’s life. 

But no one has dared to go as boldly as “Eva.Stories,” which integrated Holocaust memory into Instagram with a dramatized story.   

For years, Holocaust educators have grappled with educating young people. At the same time, we often eschew the use of the technology teenagers surround themselves with. That’s why “Eva.Stories” — which got over 120 million views in the first 24 hours after it launched on May 1 — is so effective. 

Created by father-and-daughter team Mati and Maya Kochavi, “Eva.Stories” reveals the last few months of real-life 13-year-old Hungarian Holocaust victim Eva Heyman. The pair used Instagram Stories as their medium — a choice of platform that initially drew ire from some observers. 

Just as young people are criticized for being on their phones too often, there was concern that a serious subject could not be conveyed through a “superficial medium.” Angry social media users wondered how Eva would charge her iPhone during electricity shortages, and Yuval Mendelson, a Hebrew-language columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, wrote that “Eva.Stories” was a slippery slope between Instagram stories and selfies at Auschwitz.

“The Eva.Stories Instagram page and its positive reception teaches us one thing: If we wish to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, we must meet youth where they are.” 

It’s easy to see the hesitation. Anyone who visits the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland can routinely observe visitors taking selfies on the iconic railway tracks that transported millions to their deaths, or posing for photos under the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. While the museum doesn’t expressly forbid this, the behavior is frowned upon. 

Combining cell phones, social media and Holocaust education seems, at the most basic level, to be completely tone-deaf. But from the day “Eva.Stories” was released, the results have proved otherwise.

Little-known British actress Mia Quiney took on the title role of Eva and the Kochavis hired a cast of unknowns, arguably making the project even more effective. Over the first several hours “Eva.Stories” was available, over 100 million users became transfixed by the story of the teenage girl as she shared her life via Instagram. And while Eva used emojis and Instagram polls, they somehow felt right for the story. 

The cast wasn’t all anachronistically using phones. Eva doesn’t even acknowledge that she is using a smart phone or Instagram. The social media stories, instead, served as her diary. Eva’s diary did, indeed, exist and has been published but was never widely translated.

What resulted was a beautiful story about a relatable young girl whose light was extinguished far too soon at Birkenau. 

While naysayers still exist, some going so far as to call “Eva.Stories” “gimmicky,” the story attracted the attention and accolades of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the White House Instagram account and even comedian and third-generation survivor Sarah Silverman. Instead of hindering Eva’s journey, utilizing social media brought an entirely new angle to it. 

As a writer, I have been told by those in the publishing industry not to write about the Holocaust because there is nothing new to say. But this project proves there is still everything to say. Perhaps these things can be said through a tool we’re still reticent to use. Social media comments on “Eva.Stories” back up this theory.

Roneet Rahamim wrote, in part, “I can’t help but think this is what it would be like if this happened today. It brings it home in a jarring sort of way.” 

Sabrina Perl concurred, writing, “I think it made her story relatable to a new generation that finds it hard to relate to the Holocaust. The survivors are dying out. This is an amazing way to make the experience relatable, fresh and current.” 

Others commented that had social media been in use during World War II, Anne Frank and other preteens and teens would have been documenting their struggles in a similar way. 

While Holocaust education strives to educate about the perils of evil and the millions who died in the genocide, one thing always remains clear: We want the next generation to understand these are individual stories. Telling young people that 6 million people died 75 years ago is incredibly difficult to grasp. Seeing the stolen goods at Auschwitz is jarring, but it isn’t enough to disentangle the single victim from the masses, the pair of shoes or pair of glasses from the pile of thousands that sit on display. 

We speak often of the concept that 6 million means one plus one plus one plus one and so on, and are frustrated when we find that many teens aren’t very interested in learning about these individuals who seem to have lived so long ago and so far away. 

The “Eva.Stories” Instagram page and its positive reception teaches us one thing: If we wish to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, we must meet youth where they are. In doing so, we cannot continue to be reticent to new technology, fearing that it will somehow corrupt their minds or “dumb down” history. Instead, we must embrace it for what it is without judgment.

Anne Frank dreamed of being a famous writer. Her dream came true with the help of her father, a decade after her death. Eva Heyman dreamed of becoming a famous photojournalist. Her dream came true almost 75 years after her death, and using the medium of Instagram feels even more authentic to what she wanted out of life: to silently capture it. 

By meeting young people where they are, we learn not only to find more stories in the trove of the millions that are still untold, but make them heard. As the new generation becomes the one that will bear witness, we can no longer be afraid of utilizing all available technology mediums and potentially breaking taboos.

“Eva.Stories” may have just helped usher Holocaust education, as well as remembrance, into a new era.

Anna Scanlon is a writer and Holocaust educator who holds a doctorate in Holocaust and Memory from the University of Leicester in England.