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Digital Culture

Remembering the Holocaust digitally - without survivor accounts

Eye-witness accounts have been essential to remembering the Holocaust and commemorating the victims. As time goes on in our digital age, that must change.

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"Memento": Video clip for Holocaust Remembrance Day

A boy is sitting next to railroad tracks, covering his ears with his hands. Endless freight cars of trains are passing by - trains headed to the concentration camp Auschwitz.

A crumpled piece of paper flutters out. Names of people are listed on it. People are transported like cattle, without water, without food, without an identity. They are numbers on a transport list of the Nazi authorities.

"Janusz Korszak" reads the name on the top of the list. It is the name of the Polish doctor who accompanied the children of his orphanage to the Treblinka concentration camp, although that meant death for him as well. Today he is a national hero in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe.

Notes like this one played a major role in the lives of the survivors. Jewish families were informed on a plain piece of paper of the day, time and place of their transport to concentration camps.

Small pieces of paper usually were the last way of telling others that they had been sent "to the East" - with a train ticket for the Deutsche Reichsbahn reading "Auschwitz one way."

Monument for Janusz Korczak and his orphans in the Israeli Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Monument to Janusz Korczak and his orphans in the Israeli Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial

Culture of commemoration for young people

The institution that has produced the video clip above is the European Network for Commemoration and Solidarity in Warsaw. They focus on remembrance of the Holocaust, but also on the victims of Stalinism in Eastern Europe.

Rafał Rogulski, the director of the European Network, told DW that they had a broad audience in mind while producing this commemorative video for Holocaust Commemoration Day on January 27.

"Usually, we focus our projects on the younger generation," said Rogulski. "The focus was the same with this video clip, but in fact we can reach all kinds of people with this kind of remembrance, at least those who have a basic knowledge of the Holocaust."

Rogulski worked with the Polish politician and Auschwitz survivor Władysław Bartoszewski (1922 -2015) for a long time and knows how difficult it can be to encourage remembrance nowadays.

The design of the video clip is based on the black-and-white comic drawings by American artist Art Spiegelman. He was the first to cover the topic of the Holocaust in a graphic novel in 1980. The idea to produce an animation clip was rather spontaneous, says Hans-Christian Jasch, head of the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin and co-producer of the film.

The Swedish-born New Yorker Spiegelman, 62, is known as the creator of 'Maus', an animal fable of his Jewish father's experience in the Holocaust -- the only comic book to have won a Pulitzer Prize, the top US book award, Copyright: BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images

Illustrator Art Spiegelman (here in Paris in 2012) received the Pulitzer Prize for his Holocaust comic in 1992

YouTube and the Holocaust

The focus of this particular remembrance project was clear from the outset. "We were looking for ways to generate interest in the Holocaust Remembrance Day in the era of YouTube," Jasch told DW in an interview. "We wanted to make a small animated film which disturbed the audience enough to make them want find out more about the topic."

Jasch points out that it was a risk to choose this comic-like format, but director Zoltán Szilagyi Varga has brought in a lot of experience as an international artist and graphic designer. "I hesitated for a moment, but I am convinced that we have to look for other forms of presentation now," he said. "Of course, these are the iconic images like the rolling freight train wagons. But we thought that comics are a more memorable format for younger people."

For last year's Holocaust Remembrance Day, 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the German media were inundated with a flood of eyewitness interviews. "The last survivors," as they were called by the press, were even sitting in talk shows next to the usual guests from film and politics.

A subtle approach to remembrance

The video clip "Memento" for the Holocaust Remembrance Day takes a decidedly different approach - without the abstract number of casualties, without images of the death camps, and without eyewitness statements. As a film without words, it goes under the skin, even if, at first glance, the viewer doesn't understand what it's about.

Auschwitz death camp survivor Jacek Nadolny, 77, who was registered with camp number 192685, holds up a wartime photo of his family, Copyright: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Eyewitness accounts have always been crucial to remembrance of the Holocaust

It is a shift in the culture of commemoration, says Hans-Christian Jasch. "It is more of a teaser to raise awareness and interest in this topic. Maybe someone who sees the web video without any prior knowledge will ask themselves what it is about and perhaps clicked it several times."

Rafal Rogulski is definitely satisfied with the result. "One can feel that the artist has access to those feelings. And it can express them with a charcoal pencil on paper."

Until now, historical documentaries or web videos about the Holocaust have made a point of including witnesses. "In Germany we will try to make the most of eyewitnesses and their reports as long as possible. We will not be able to replace that in the future," Hans-Christian Jasch added.

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