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Source: Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker, June 26, 2014

Four teen-agers huddle together, striking a severe pose like a boy band. In the background, just overhead, a sign looms: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” A girl kneels down next to some austere-looking, moss-ridden stairs. Wearing a black beanie and red lipstick, she makes a duck face and an inverse peace sign as the camera snaps. Two girlfriends draped in Israeli flags stand side by side, smiling, in a snow-topped forest. The caption reads, “#Trablinka #poland #jewish.” Underneath, a single comment: “Oh my god, beauties!!!”

The Instagram era has now brought us the selfie in a concentration camp. Or, as the phenomenon was identified in the title of a new Israeli Facebook page (translated here loosely), With My Besties in Auschwitz. The page, taken down on Wednesday, culled from real-life photos—most of them also taken down recently—that had been posted on social-media sites by Israeli kids on school trips to Poland. From the self-absorbed faux seriousness of some (meditating on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau!) to the jarring jokiness of others (hitching a ride by the train tracks!), the pictures have fed a perception of today’s youth as a bunch of technology-obsessed, self-indulgent narcissists.

They also bring to mind the photos compiled in the popular Selfies at Funerals Tumblr blog. But if the “funeral selfie” kids were somehow hilarious in their inappropriateness, there’s nothing quite like seeing Israeli teens blowing kisses from the death camps of Poland to send you into a confusing and curious rage.

The creator of With My Besties in Auschwitz saw the selfie-taking phenomenon among Israeli kids firsthand when she visited Poland herself. She found the pictures by combing through Instagram, Facebook, and Google and using searches for Holocaust-related terms. The variety was “endless,” she says. She created a Facebook page, posted the pictures while peppering them with some caustic captions of her own—“Babes! I’m saving you a seat on the bus to Trablinka!” next to a picture of two pouting girls in Auschwitz, “Even here I’m drop dead gorgeous!” next to another—and watched the page go viral overnight, garnering tens of thousands of likes and shares. During the next twenty-four hours, articles appeared in many major news outlets, and outrage quickly ensued.

Ironically, instead of lobbing the barbs at the offending teen-agers, people seemed to aim most of their criticisms at the creator of the page. “6 million Jews! Shame on you!” was a common refrain among the comments on the site. Watching this unfold from the outside, the angry commenters felt similar to those who took Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” at face value. By the time I tracked down the creator of With My Besties in Auschwitz and chatted with her online, she refused to give her name, saying that she had been “threatened with bizarre lawsuits.”

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“This page started as a total joke meant for my friends,” she told me. “I just thought there was something grotesque in tagging #mountofash next to a mount of ash in Majdanek, or in making a ‘sexy’ or ‘seductive’ face next to a crematorium. What is this supposed to mean exactly—I look hot in Auschwitz?! Turns out many people agreed with me.”

She added that, although the page started in jest, it highlights a disturbing phenomenon in Israel. “The message is the despicable use that is being done of the Holocaust.” She went on, “In a way, it’s not these kids’ faults. Many politicians are cynically using the Holocaust to further their own agenda.” As an example, she cited a recent speech by Israel’s finance minister, who brought up the experience of Jews in the Second World War to lambaste Israelis who choose to leave the country.

“I used sarcasm because when you talk about it seriously it doesn’t really work,” she said. The message was apparently received. Most of the teen-agers, whose names she had redacted, had caught on to the site and were shamed into removing the pictures from their accounts. With her mission accomplished, the creator of With My Besties in Auschwitz shut down the Facebook page. “After rocking the Web here, I feel like this has served its purpose,” she told me, with an air of defiance. “Those who didn’t get the message until now most likely never will.”

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3 Comments

  1. As a first generation Australian Jew born of Holocaust survivors from Poland, I was educated in all matters Shoah related from K to Yr12 and by that I mean that rarely did more than a day or two pass without the Holocaust being a topic of conversation. It was as if our parents’ suffering and loss required that we, their innocent children, had to be exposed to the horrors of the Concentration Camps regularly and repeatedly, by the full gamut of methods available at the time. And so it was that at the age of 6yrs, I sat in the Junior Hall of the Primary School, watching grainy Black & White Super 8 footage of the liberation of the camps and the bulldozing of piles of emaciaTED corpses into deep, horrifying pits in order to prevent epidemic from finishing off the half-dead.

    The result of constant exposure to the trauma of the Holocaust in service of memorialisation has been found to range from Secondary PTSD to a disdain for the narrative of Holocaust. With today’s’ teens, new approaches need to be devised that bring the history of the Holocaust to life for young Jews whose parents don’t wish that their kids receive their education re the Holocaust in such a brutal manner. Until that task is completed, acting out behaviour will serve to diffuse tension, guilt, shame and other confused or emotions. There is no “correct way” to handle this pilgrimage and it appears that the teachers had no clear idea as to briefing the teens before they were released home. In my view, these teens should be told what’s expected of them and disrespectful behaviour should be stopped on site.

  2. Without denying that there was anti-Semitism in Poland, they were not “death camps of Poland”. They were German death camps in occupied Poland.

  3. “kisses from the death camps of Poland”, guess this term should not be used. It’s a bit offensive for polish peopole (victims, killed in those German camps).


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