Self­ies strip sites of grav­i­tas

In the look-at-me-age of In­sta­gram and Face­book, a place of solemn re­flec­tion has also be­come some­thing else, writes An­thony Faiola.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

The Me­mo­rial to the Mur­dered Jews of Europe is an un­du­lat­ing sea of stone blocks lined up like so many coffins on a sprawl­ing patch of cen­tral Berlin. But it has be­come some­thing else. The per­fect back­drop for a selfie. At a place hon­our­ing the mem­ory of the Nazis’ vic­tims, young laugh­ing vis­i­tors hop from block to block, search­ing for the best an­gles. Some pose sen­su­ally atop the slabs for eye­candy shots on dat­ing web­sites. One man had his pic­ture taken be­tween the stones while jug­gling. Then some­one said ‘‘Stop!’’ That some­one was best-sell­ing au­thor Sha­hak Shapira – a 28-year-old Is­raeli trans­plant to Berlin who launched a project, Yolo­caust that be­came an ex­am­ple of the power of the in­ter­net to gen­er­ate shame. He pub­lished images of some of the worst of­fend­ers, then blended them into hor­rific back­drops of the Holocaust.

The ef­fort, which plays on the phrase ‘‘you only live once’’, went vi­ral across Europe and be­yond, be­com­ing a sting­ing ex­am­ple of how record num­bers of global tourists – par­tic­u­larly the young – have stripped revered sites of their grav­i­tas.

‘‘Look, this is not a place for fun self­ies, and peo­ple need to know this,’’ he said. ‘‘No, it’s not ‘OK.’’’

A co­me­dian – and the de­scen­dant of a Holocaust sur­vivor – Shapira said he has watched for years as vis­i­tors treated the me­mo­rial with dis­re­spect. He put his project to­gether, he said, after a neo-Nazi web­site ran a piece de­light­ing in the selfie craze and what it called Berlin’s ‘‘hoax mon­u­ment’’.

He is all about ir­rev­er­ence – he hit the talk­show cir­cuit re­cently by riff­ing on his life as a Jew in Ger­many. He ar­rived from Is­rael at 14, brought by his mother and her Ger­man boyfriend. They set­tled, he said, in a small town in the for­mer com­mu­nist east, where he de­picts ex­is­tence for a young Jewish boy as a chal­lenge.

Dur­ing a school foot­ball match, he said, other kids teased him, warn­ing he’d be sent to a con­cen­tra­tion camp if he didn’t score. He satirised his fate in a best-sell­ing book roughly trans­lated from Ger­man as ‘‘Tell It Like it Is: How I Be­came the Most Ger­man Jew in the

'This is not a place for fun self­ies, and peo­ple need to know this. It's not OK.' Sha­hak Shapira

World.’’ But there should, he said, be lim­its to ir­rev­er­ence. ‘‘The Holocaust is one of them,’’ he said.

His work as the me­mo­rial’s selfie tak­ers has di­vided ob­servers. He be­came an overnight so­cial-me­dia sen­sa­tion, with some saying he should be awarded a prize. But oth­ers ripped Shapira for us­ing the images of Holocaust vic­tims.

‘‘If he wasn’t a Jew, one would have con­demned him for this,’’ the au­thor Mirna Funk wrote in Zeit On­line. ‘‘For us­ing con­cen­tra­tion camp in­mates and mur­dered Jews – peo­ple, who might not want to be part of this cam­paign, be­cause they don’t want to be turned into vic­tims of the Ger­mans for for­ever and all times.’’

But like his work or not, Shapira’s project has touched a nerve in a coun­try where con­tro­versy, dis­com­fort, and the mem­ory of the Holocaust of­ten go to­gether. The me­mo­rial has thun­dered back into the news after Bjorn Hocke – a politi­cian for the na­tion­al­ist Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many party – de­liv­ered a con­tro­ver­sial speech re­cently de­scrib­ing it as ‘‘a me­mo­rial of dis­grace’’. He topped that off by call­ing com­mem­o­ra­tion cul­ture of World War II-era crimes ‘‘stupid’’.

The com­ments sparked out­rage, but Hocke’s su­pe­ri­ors stopped short of eject­ing him from the party, sug­gest­ing a level of tol­er­ance with such no­tions that have be­gun to worry some in the re­built Jewish com­mu­nity.

Con­tro­versy has sur­rounded Berlin’s Holocaust me­mo­rial since its plan­ning stages. At its 2005 in­au­gu­ra­tion, Paul Spiegel, then-pres­i­dent of Ger­many’s Cen­tral Coun­cil of Jews, crit­i­cised it for be­ing too ab­stract and fail­ing to ad­dress the is­sue of guilt. Shortly after, the first re­ports emerged of peo­ple joy­ously jump­ing from stele to stele, prompt­ing the pub­li­ca­tion Der Spiegel to pon­der, ‘‘Is this what com­mem­o­ra­tion looks like?’’

But the selfie ob­ses­sion in re­cent years, crit­ics say, ap­pears to have pushed the prob­lem to an­other level. Dur­ing a visit to the me­mo­rial this week, tourists had writ­ten their names and mes­sages in­clud­ing ‘‘I heart Berlin’’ into the snow on some of the lower slabs.

Be­tween the blocks, Louis, a 27-yearold Colom­bian tourist, had just fin­ished tak­ing a photo of him­self with a selfie stick.

When asked if he felt some peo­ple might find that in­ap­pro­pri­ate, he quickly replied, ‘‘I to­tally agree. This is a place that peo­ple should re­spect – I apol­o­gise’’, be­fore run­ning off to his tour group.

Yet it is per­haps the ab­stract na­ture of the me­mo­rial that has led so many vis­i­tors to treat it as just an­other art space. The me­mo­rial it­self has set no guide­lines on self­ies – although its se­cu­rity staff are sup­posed to ask vis­i­tors to re­frain from climb­ing atop the slabs.

Jewish lead­ers say they are not cer­tain that a selfie ban would be help­ful and that it may rob the me­mo­rial of a sense of open­ness.

‘‘Not ev­ery­one’s be­hav­iour is what some may wish, but this me­mo­rial truly helped to an­chor Holocaust mem­ory,’’ said Dei­dre Berger, direc­tor of the Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee’s Berlin of­fice.

Shapira’s project went vi­ral, and most of the 12 photos he started with have since been re­moved at the sub­jects’ re­quest. Most of those have also of­fered apolo­gies.

‘‘Some­times you just need to give peo­ple a lit­tle push, and they get it,’’ he said. – The Washington Post

At a place hon­our­ing the mem­ory of the Nazis’ vic­tims, young laugh­ing vis­i­tors hop from block to block, search­ing for the best an­gles.

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