For the former Nazi German death camp Auschwitz, Twitter has become a powerful tool in Holocaust education. PHOTO: AFP

Pandemic forces first-ever digital Holocaust Remembrance Day

This year, testimonials from survivors will be streamed online and in a pre-recorded ceremony to be broadcast

Afp April 20, 2020
Berthe Badehi, who hid from the Nazis as a child during World War II, has become one of the many Holocaust survivors confined in their homes to evade the coronavirus.

"It's not easy, but we do it to stay alive," the 88-year-old said of her current self-isolation at home in Israel.

"One thing I learnt during the war was how to take care of myself."

Movement and travel restrictions in place to contain the pandemic have forced this week's Holocaust Remembrance Day Yom HaShoah in Hebrew to be exclusively digital for the first time.

In a normal year, symbolic events are organised at various locations, notably with survivors at the sites in Europe where the Nazis built concentration and extermination camps.

This year, testimonials from survivors will be streamed online and featured in a pre-recorded ceremony to be broadcast in Israel by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center, when Yom HaShoah begins on Monday evening.

The limitations on organising events this year served as a reminder that in the not-too-distant future ceremonies with survivors will no longer be possible because the last of them will have passed away.

"We have talked a lot about what happens when survivors are not here," said Stephen Smith, who heads the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California.

This week's scaled-back commemorations, "made us realise what the future might be like," Smith told AFP.

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"It is a test of our resolve..."

"Maybe it is an opportunity to say... we won't get 10,000 people at Auschwitz, but maybe we can get a million people (watching) online," he added, referring to the Nazi concentration and extermination camp in Poland.

- 'Attacking the memory' -

For survivors like Badehi, any comparison between COVID-19 isolation and Nazi-era confinement in ghettos and camps is inappropriate.

"In France, during the war, we lived in fear, we hid our identity and we lost contact with our parents..."

"Today, we may be locked inside, but we have contact with our children and grandchildren through the phone and internet," added Badehi, who volunteered at Yad Vashem until it closed due to the virus.

Dov Landau, a 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor, said it was "indecent" to make comparisons between the two eras.

"Today we are neither hungry nor thirsty. Men, women and children are unlikely to be burned alive. Sure, I'm bored... but it's nothing serious," he told AFP.

He regularly travelled from Israel to Auschwitz to speak to school groups, but those trips came to a stop because of the pandemic.

Beyond cancellation of educational events, COVID-19 has posed a particularly grave threat to Holocaust survivors, given their age.

The virus "is absolutely attacking the memory of the Holocaust because it is attacking the elderly," Smith said, adding that he is aware of several survivors who have died from coronavirus-related complications.

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"It is also attacking our ability to (collect) these stories," he said.

- 'Sense of urgency' -

The Shoah Foundation has developed an augmented reality application to document the journey across Europe endured by many Holocaust survivors.

One survivor whose experience was scheduled to be documented this year was Eva Schloss, whose mother married Anne Frank's father Otto after the war.

Schloss "has an amazing story," Smith said. "Very, very similar to Anne Frank, the only difference is that she survived."

"She was literally in the kitchen watching Otto prepare the diary for publication," he said.

Because of the pandemic, the foundation had to cancel plans to collect material with Schloss in Vienna, Amsterdam and Auschwitz.

The foundation is partnering on the augmented reality project with The March of the Living, the prominent educational programme that brings young people to the sites of concentration camps.

Eli Rubenstein, a Toronto-based rabbi who heads March of the Living Canada, said he has spoken to many survivors who insisted they will be available to give testimonials next year.

"They are very strong people, full of optimism," he told AFP.

But, he added, the delay forced by the pandemic "gives us a new sense of urgency."