Holocaust victim's story brought to life on Instagram in bid to engage young people

An Instagram account based on a teen Jewish victim's real-life journal is creating buzz as a new way to share Holocaust testimony.

Series of social media stories is inspired by 13-year-old Eva Heyman's real-life journal

A photograph of 13-year-old Eva Heyman in Hungary, months before she was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. An Instagram account based on Heyman's real-life journal is generating buzz as an innovative way to share Holocaust testimony with youth. (Yad Vashem/Associated Press)

For seven decades, survivor testimony has been the centrepiece of Holocaust commemoration.

But with the world's community of aging survivors rapidly shrinking and global understanding of the genocide that killed six million Jews declining, advocates of Holocaust remembrance are seeking new and creative ways to share witnesses' stories with younger generations.

Much as Anne Frank's diary gripped the older generations, an Instagram account based on a true 13-year-old Jewish victim's journal, called Eva Stories (@eva.stories), is generating buzz among the young.

"If we want to bring the memory of the Holocaust to the young generation, we have to bring it to where they are," said the project co-producer, Mati Kochavi, an Israeli high-tech billionaire who hails from a family of Holocaust victims, survivors and educators. "And they're on Instagram."

Kochavi and his daughter, Maya, have created a series of 70 Instagram stories that chronicle the downward spiral of Eva Heyman's life in the fateful spring of 1944 when the Nazis conquered Hungary.

Heyman was one of approximately 430,000 Hungarian Jews who were deported to Nazi concentration camps between May 15 and July 9, 1944. Of the estimated six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, around 568,000 were Hungarian, according to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Heyman's tale, produced as a Hollywood-style movie with a cast of foreign actors and a multi-million dollar budget, will stream throughout Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, which begins at sundown Wednesday.

Over 180,000 followers

The instalments appear as if Heyman had owned a smartphone during the Second World War and was using Instagram to broadcast her life updates.

The story goes live Wednesday afternoon, opening with Heyman's happier adolescent experiences, then darkening as night falls. The Nazis tighten their hold on Hungary's Jews, confiscating her family's business, belongings and home, deporting Heyman to the ghetto and ultimately to the Auschwitz death camp.

The story's climactic event is timed to follow Israel's two-minute siren that wails nationwide on Thursday, bringing the country to a standstill at 10 a.m., in annual commemoration of Jewish Holocaust victims.

A woman places a flower next to the name of a former death camp as she visits the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, on the annual Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Jerusalem on April 12, 2018. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Even days before the series' release, the account had amassed over 180,000 followers.

One of them was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who posted a video to Instagram on Monday urging Israelis to follow the account and spread stories of survivors via social media in order to "remind ourselves what we lost in the Holocaust and what was returned to us by the creation of the state of Israel."

The trailer, released on Sunday, asks "What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?"

The brief film shows simulated cellphone footage of Heyman's fictionalized life, from dancing with friends and a birthday with her grandparents, to Nazi troops marching through the streets of Budapest.

Dozens of Holocaust victims kept diaries of their experiences, with the best known work written by Anne Frank.

The Kochavis pored over scores of the diaries before deciding on Heyman, who, Maya Kochavi said, is the kind of girl "a modern kid in 2019 could connect to," with an unrequited middle school crush, family drama and grand ambitions to become a news photographer.

They hope Heyman's first-hand account will engage otherwise disinterested or uninformed youth.

'Cheapening of the Holocaust'

Yet the concept is not without controversy. While the bulk of the feedback appears to be positive, some critics fear the story, with its internet lingo, hashtags and emojis, risks trivializing Holocaust atrocities.

"A cheapening of the Holocaust compressed into Boomerang," one Instagram user, Dor Levi, wrote in Hebrew in response to the trailer. He facetiously remarked that "the place for commemorating the Holocaust and getting the message across is on Instagram, between the butt of a random model and a video of a chocolate cake."

Maya Kochavi said she anticipated backlash. But she defended Instagram as a place where "lots of very intense and very powerful movements are happening," with potential to convey history's relevance at a time when anti-Semitism is surging in parts of the world, and Holocaust deniers are amplifying their dangerous messages online.

A billboard advertising Eva's Stories is seen in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

"It is frightening but quite clear to me. We might be the last generation that really remembers and cares about the Holocaust," said her father.

The Kochavis said that, as part of their work, they found that a tiny fraction of social media conversations about the Holocaust in the U.S. and Europe are young people. Their research resonates with recent studies by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany revealing significant gaps in Holocaust knowledge among American millennials.

As physical relics disintegrate and human memories fade, Eva's Instagram story contributes to a growing push by Holocaust museums and memorials to capture young people's attention with interactive technology, such as video testimonies, apps and holograms.

The efforts aim, Maya said, is "to make monumental historical events tangible and relatable," and to preserve stories of witnesses in perpetuity.