Bringing Holocaust remembrance to TikTok
A 15-year-old girl with hollow cheeks looks mournfully into the camera, her video accompanied by a song by R&B singer Bruno Mars. A video caption explains that she is about to be deported to a concentration camp.
Next, a young man in a striped uniform appears to stage his supposed arrival in heaven. He says he was murdered in a gas chamber in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Back in August 2020, these reenactments of Holocaust victim stories onTikTok sparked a major controversy: a hashtag challenge led users in Generation Z (aged 14 to 24) to pretend to be Holocaust victims who had perished in concentration camps.
The Auschwitz memorial responded to the trend, calling it "hurtful and offensive."
One of the young TikTokers defended herself in an interview, saying she had been trying to educate people and raise awareness about the Holocaust.
But at the time, many agreed that a platform famous for its viral dance videos was not appropriate for short clips about the Holocaust, even if they were intended to raise awareness.
TikTok can be different
Two years later, also in August, it's a rare hot summer day in northern Germany. But instead of spending the day at the beach, 21-year-old David Gutzeit and his younger sister, Jonna, leave their home on the Baltic Sea coast to drive to the former Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg.
In the glaring sun, they contemplate a memorial of carefully piled stones, the symbolic remains of the prison barracks in which thousands of concentration camp inmates were crammed together.
The Neuengamme memorial commemorates the more than 100,000 people from all over Europe who were imprisoned in the main camp and its more than 85 satellite camps during the Nazi era.
Half of these people did not survive the concentration camp.
A new approach to Holocaust remembrance on TikTok
"Many young people come here because they saw us on TikTok," said Iris Groschek, the historian responsible for the TikTok channel at the Neuengamme memorial — the first channel of its kind when it was founded in November 2021.
TikTok has become an important way for the memorial center to reach young people who are no longer on Facebook and other older social media platforms, said Groschek.
"It's not enough for me just to read about it in school books, I want to see and feel where these Nazi atrocities happened," said David, visibly moved.
Nicolas, a 17-year-old from Madrid, said he was the one who convinced his parents to stop in Neuengamme during their sightseeing trip in Germany.
Starlett from Kansas and Hannah from Hawaii are also at the site to learn about the history of the concentration camp.
Studies show that Generation Z— people born between 1995 and 2010 — know little about concentration camps, yet are much more interested in the Nazi era than their parents' generation.
"We want to create visibility for the topic among the young target group and reach Gen-Z users on TikTok," explained Groschek. "We would otherwise hardly be able to reach them with our educational work on other platforms."
The account now has 27,000 followers. Some of its videos go viral and have millions of views.
Volunteers contribute as content creators
The video creators are young volunteers from all over the world who work at the memorial as part of their time spent working with the organization Action Reconciliation Service for Peace.
"We're very careful that our videos don't overwhelm users emotionally. We want the community to learn something," said Groschek, adding that they don't reenact victims' stories or concentration camp scenes, as is otherwise often seen on TikTok.
The memorial center's pioneering work has also inspired others.
Neuengamme is no longer alone on TikTok; other concentration camp memorials, such as Bergen-Belsen in Germany and Mauthausen in Austria, have since created their own accounts.
Numbers clearly demonstrate the outreach potential, said Marlene Wöckinger, TikTok creator for the Mauthausen memorial. Around 200,000 people visit Mauthausen every year, whereas a single TikTok video can have the same reach.
Holocaust eyewitnesses share their stories on TikTok
Some Holocaust survivors have already used the platform, including Lily Ebert, who together with her great-grandson has 1.9 million followers.
The 99-year-old even follows dance trends while using the platform to tell her survival story.
Gidon Lev, who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp, is also on TikTok.
For International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the 88-year-old produced a video in cooperation with the Neuengamme memorial center. The video is part of a series with different Holocaust memorials that he publishes on his TikTok channel.
"To my great consternation, in these last few years, hate, violence, antisemitism and more have resurged," said Lev.
The Holocaust survivor wants to increase awareness among younger generations, warning them against "this ugly, destructive phenomena, in any and every way possible."
"We must tell the truth, warn of the dangers and fight back! Don't give in, don't give up, don't forget!"
TikTok launches its own awareness campaign
The social media platform itself has recognized the popularity of the theme: TikTok now automatically links every video about the Holocaust to aboutholocaust.org, an educational website created by the World Jewish Congress and UNESCO.
TikTok has also started its own "Shoah Education and Commemoration Initiative," which has since been awarded the Shimon Peres Prize. Accordingly, TikTok supports 15 memorial centers — such as Neuengamme or Mauthausen — by offering workshops and exchanges in cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"We must prevent the Holocaust from being degraded to just another chapter in a textbook," said Yaki Lopez, head of public relations at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin. "That is why it is important to adapt the commemoration of the Holocaust and the transmission of knowledge to the realities of the lives of the younger generation."
TikTok's Shoah initiative also makes an important contribution in this regard, he added.
The DW TikTok account Berlin Fresh also produced an educational series in cooperation with the Neuengamme memorial.
Guidelines for visitors to former concentration camps
A look at the DW Berlin Fresh user data shows that interest in the subject is very high: More than 9 million views were generated by one of the 30-second explainer video in the DW series, and viewers were mainly under the age of 24.
In "3 things you shouldn't do at a former concentration camp," TikToker Daniel Cartwright, who is an Action Reconciliation Service for Peace volunteer from the UK at the Neuengamme memorial, explains from his personal perspective how one should behave when visiting such a site.
How does the 23-year-old feel about addressing Nazi atrocities in videos every day?
"Sometimes the horrors of the place do get to me," said Cartwright in the DW series. "But then I hear that young people come here to the memorial because of our TikToks and want to learn more — and then I realize how important our work is."