The Role of the Educator and the Selfie at Auschwitz

Social media symbolsby Sharna Marcus

A headline in an Israeli news website today reads, “Facebook page ridicules Israelis’ selfies at Auschwitz.” Someone created a Facebook page filled with pictures of Israeli teens taking either photos of themselves or others posing at death camps. The photos were taken from social media sites and then added to this page.

I went to the page itself and expected to see documented evidence of inappropriate behavior, but I was wrong and so is the person who launched the page to mock the teens and so are the commentators who are using this as ammunition for the tired cliché, “What is wrong with this generation?”

A little background: Many Israeli and Jewish teenagers from all over the world make a pilgrimage of sorts to sites in Europe where Jewish communities existed and to the places where the Nazis ghettoized, enslaved and murdered them. I led three such trips of American teenagers to Berlin and Poland.

The point of such a trip is not to force the teenagers to be sad and solemn. The goals of the organization I worked for was to

  • introduce teenagers to the vibrant Jewish life in Europe before the Nazis
  • provide the students with a connection to their own ancestry in Europe
  • teach them stories of tragedy, resistance and rescue
  • explain what Jewish life remains
  • and most importantly to bear witness to the tragedy of the Shoah and to embrace the philosophy of “Never Again.”

After the Europe portion, the adolescents would go on to Israel. Part of their journey was seeing the Holocaust in the context of the state of Israel.

There are times where the teenagers must be quiet and respectful, specifically when a guide is talking to them, during group activities, and while at the particularly terrible places such as the crematorium at Majdonek. There are some students who do so automatically and some who need more guidance. I remember once telling a student not to wear their shortest shorts at a death camp and the Warsaw cemetery. I also once told two students who seemed disinterested that if they didn’t want to listen, they needed to just be quiet and respectful. When a girl was sitting on a boy’s lap at the Umschlagplatz memorial in Warsaw, I asked them to each find their own seats. When a student was walking around with headphones on, I’d ask him to put them away.

Those stories do not represent what’s wrong with teenagers. They reflect the role of the educator on the trip: to guide the adolescents through this journey. If part of the guidance is teaching them how to behave appropriately, that’s a reasonable expectation. If a student is carrying a sign with the F-Word, as depicted on the Facebook page, it should be taken away with an explanation as to why. If teens are posing inappropriately for countless selfies, they need to be asked, if necessary, to behave with a bit more decorum.

But no program can or should have the goal of making an adolescent feel something in a certain way. Feelings are deeply personal and how an individual processes the horrors of the Holocaust is part of their heart.

Posting photographs instantly on social media is how this generation communicates (not to mention just about everyone under the age of 80). Whether that’s good or bad is another conversation, but photographing being happy at these sites is not immoral.

And smiling Jewish teenagers at Auschwitz in front of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign has a certain beauty to it. It is a message of despite Hitler’s best efforts the Jewish people are still here and always will be.

Sharna Marcus is a high school History and English teacher in Israel and was the former Director of Education at Shorashim.