Israeli-German artist shames Holocaust memorial selfies
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Israeli-German artist shames Holocaust memorial selfies

Shahak Shapira's 'YOLOCAUST' project combines Instagram photos with images of concentration camp victims to hard-hitting effect

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Detail from YOLOCAUST by Shahak Shapira (yolocaust.de)
Detail from YOLOCAUST by Shahak Shapira (yolocaust.de)

It wasn’t long after the advent of image-driven social media platforms that photos of tourists posing and preening in Auschwitz and Dachau started popping up online. Unsurprisingly, the act of taking frivolous selfies at Holocaust memorial sites is upsetting to the Jewish World.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is one of the most popular places for these selfies. Also known as the Holocaust Memorial, it is a 4.7 acre area of undulating ground covered in 2711 rectangular blocks in grid formation.

Despite the solemn purpose of the installation, the tops of the stelai, as well as the narrow alleyways between them, are places that a surprisingly large number find suitable for everything from picnicking to skateboarding to staging fashion photography shoots.

Despite the complaints and increased security at the memorial, visitors (some of whom presumably stumble upon the site in a busy area a block south of the Brandenburg Gate and are unaware of its significance) continue to treat it as a convenient selfie backdrop.

An online project recently launched by a young Israeli-German is aimed at curbing this offensive phenomenon. And in seeing its viral reception, it might just succeed where others have failed.

Shahak Shapira (YouTube screenshot)
Shahak Shapira (YouTube screenshot)

The project, titled, YOLOCAUST, uses the same visual social media language that speaks to young people. It packs its punch by digitally combining selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial with archival images of the victims of Nazi concentration camps.

Viewers first see a photo of a couple of guys in colorful ski jackets and knit hats having fun by jumping above the memorial’s stone slabs. When dragging the cursor over the image, the youth are suddenly leaping over piles of corpses from historical Holocaust footage.

Similarly, his work shows young people of today juggling, doing gymnastics and posing in other carefree ways in front of — or on top of — bodies in mass graves, or with inmates in camp barracks.

The juxtaposition is shocking.

Israeli Shahak Shapira is a Berlin-based art director and aspiring musician in his late 20s who has lived in Germany since he was 14, when his mother immigrated him and his brother following a divorce from their father. Shapira spent his high school years in Laucha, a small town in Saxony-Anhalt, where neo-Nazis and right wing radicals were prevalent, especially in the soccer clubs.

Shapira gained notice in January 2015 when on New Year’s Day he was attacked on Berlin’s U-Bahn by a group of young Muslims. Shapira had tried to use his phone to record the group singing anti-Semitic songs and cursing Jews and Israel. Although the Muslims reportedly badly beat Shapira, he told the media that he did not want the incident to be used to fan the flames of anti-Muslim hatred in Germany.

“The incident must not be abused to incite hatred against Muslims. I have already noticed how some are trying to exploit it. My attackers could just as easily have be neo-Nazis and beaten an Arab,” he said.

Detail from YOLOCAUST by Shahak Shapira (yolocaust.de)
Detail from YOLOCAUST by Shahak Shapira (yolocaust.de)

Following the incident, Shapira wrote a satirical autobiography titled, “You Will Probably Be Allowed To Write This: How I Became the Most German Jew in the World.” In it, he grapples with his rather unique identity, which includes being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor grandfather on one side of his family. On the other side, he is the grandson of Amitzur Shapira, one of the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

On his Facebook page, Shapira wrote that he dedicates his YOLOCAUST (a portmanteau of the acronym for the youthful slang phrase “you only live once” and Holocaust) to “my favorite, bernd höcke neonazi.” Shapira refers to Björn Höcke, leader of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) who has attacked the notion of Holocaust memorials, remembrance and education. On Tuesday, he addressed a meeting of party supporters in Dresden, saying, “We Germans are the only people in the world who have erected a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”

Detail from YOLOCAUST by Shahak Shapira (yolocaust.de)
Detail from YOLOCAUST by Shahak Shapira (yolocaust.de)

On his YOLOCAUST website, Shapira offers some tongue-in-cheek FAQ’s to the heretofore clueless young people who have been shooting their profile pics for Facebook, Tinder and Grindr at the Holocaust Memorial. Here’s an example:

Q: Isn’t this disrespectful towards the victims of the Holocaust?
A: Yes, some people’s behaviour at the memorial site is indeed disrespectful. But the victims are dead, so they’re probably busy doing dead people’s stuff rather than caring about that.

Some have questioned whether it was right of Shapira to grab people’s photos off the internet for his project. It’s a legitimate thought, and one that must have occurred to Shapira. If those he’s featured regret having uploaded their Holocaust Memorial selfie, they just have to email Shapira at undouche.me@yolocaust.de with their confessions.

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