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Yolocaust and Living Memory

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


Photograph of tourists running along the memorial stones at Berlin's Holocaust Memorial.

The Yolocaust project was a true shock to the system. Brilliant and provocative, it gained prominence over the past months in the lead up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Israeli artist and satirist, Shahak Shapira, living in Berlin, noticed an increasing number of people taking selfies at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, all with happy, smiling faces, in the most bizarre poses. All the images were posted freely by the subjects on Facebook and other social media platforms.

So Shahak took those images and photo-shopped them by removing the modern backgrounds and replacing them with images of murdered Jews from the Holocaust. The results are disturbing in the extreme - people holding Yoga poses on a heap of corpses and leaping over piles of bodies. (You can see some of these photos here and here - warning, they are disturbing).

I found it grotesque and revolting. But more grotesque and revolting was the mind-numbing thought that people could cavort and perform at such a site and then photograph their antics and post them as if they were normal. Who would run along the stones of the memorial, leaping from one to the other, as if it were a hopscotch game in the playground? Who does that? These were not Neo-Nazis, they were "ordinary" people.

Shahak made a site for these altered images and called it "Yolocaust" , with the term, "Yolo" being an oft-used web acronym meaning, "You Only Live Once (YOLO)." He was shaming (but not naming) these people who felt so at peace with posting such horrendous, trivialising photos. On his website, he specified that if the subjects in the photos wished the photos removed, they could contact him. As of this moment, all the subjects have contacted him and all the photos have been removed.

But the message was clear - the Holocaust cannot turn into some sort of casual, entertaining, internet-memed Yolocaust.

It is the Holocaust. It is sacred. Not for selfies and Snapchat.

Denial vs. #YOLO

As a person who leads tours to Poland each year, what hit me hardest in all this was that these tourists were practising a Holocaust denial on the most monumental scale possible - they weren't standing up and saying "The Holocaust never happened", they were saying, "The Holocaust doesn't matter."

The difference is profound. Deniers are bothered by the facts of the past so they attack and deny them. YOLO'ers don't care either way.

Deniers you can take to court, as Deborah Lipstadt did; but how on earth do you combat such a monumental insensibility?

Living Memory

In many places, the Torah cautions the Jewish people to remember certain key events in their history. But as it would happen, regarding the attempted genocide of the Jewish people by Amalek, the Torah cautions, "Remember! Don't forget!"

My Master and Teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein z"l once commented on this strange phrase - surely if you remember something you have not forgotten it? His response was, as always, piercing: there are some items of knowledge which sit in our memory banks - we have not forgotten them, if someone asks us, we give the correct answer; but they are not items of which we are conscious all the time. When G-d cautions us to remember and not forget, it is a warning that we need to progress beyond recollection to consciousness, to living memory.

Active Memory

In Jewish life, that is what we do with powerful experiences, whether positive or traumatic: we act on them, we plant the memories deep within our recollections but we water them each year with ritual. This is how we kept alive the dreams of returning to Jerusalem for 2000 years - we sat at the seder and reenacted our freedom and yearning for home. This is how we ensured we never forgot the Temple in Jerusalem (which apparently never existed)- we spend much of Yom Kippur reliving the Temple service, bowing down as we would have done in the Temple courtyard.

This is what we need to start doing now with the Holocaust, and swiftly.

For those who live in this generation, the last generation able to meet survivors, we need to take ourselves and our children to meet them and take photos and videos there and then! For those who have not yet been to Poland with a survivor, and who have the means, it is an opportunity one simply cannot forego. We need to take our children to the public Yom Hashoah ceremonies. And most importantly, we need to begin incorporating active rituals within our families, channeling the messages of the Holocaust, as we always do, into positive acts of courage, rebuilding, spiritual growth and sensitivity to others.

If we don't, it could be that in one or two generations, G-d forbid, the #YOLO photo taken at a memorial could be a child or grandchild of our own.

Rabbi Widmonte is the Dean of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning ( Should you wish to join this year's Poland tour - "Journey to Life" - please drop us a mail.

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