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.
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.