After years of being told she “does not look Jewish” or have a Jewish-sounding name, social media sensation Montana Tucker is proudly owning her heritage with an educational docu-series on TikTok.
Earlier this year, Tucker took a film crew to Poland to capture the story of her mother’s parents during the Holocaust. Edited into a 10-part docu-series, the last episode of “How to: Never Forget” will hit TikTok later this week.
“This has been my responsibility to do this, for me and my grandparents and everyone else,” said Tucker, whose series has been viewed by more than a million people so far.
“My grandparents fought for their lives to be Jewish,” Tucker told The Times of Israel in an interview.
With almost 9 million followers on TikTok, Tucker is known for filming well-choreographed dance segments with performers from around the world. Depending on the scene, Tucker may be co-starring with — for example — a boy in Santa Monica, a famous rap artist, or her own mother.
“People are used to seeing my very light-hearted, fun dance videos and me collaborating with a lot of different people,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s rare for me and my content, and rare for the platform in general, to have a docuseries on the Holocaust,” Tucker said.
11 million individual MURDERS. 6 million European Jews, 5 million non-Jews, including people of color, Gypsies, LGBT, and people with limitations…how can one ever comprehend that? •Belzec is one of the deathcamps from the Holocaust that we explore in this episode… 500,000 murders in one place. What I saw there, I’ll NEVER FORGET. hholocaustbbelzecddeathcampnneverforgetnneveragainjjewishaantisemitismendhate
Edited into two-minute segments, “How to: Never Forget” immerses adolescents in the history of Nazi Germany’s genocide of six million Jews during World War II. To give viewers hope and encourage them to be “upstanders,” the series also shines a light on Polish families who risked their lives to rescue Jews.
“This docu-series is very different,” said Tucker, who visited Poland with JRoots tour guide Zak Jeffay.
“It’s not like reading a history book,” said Tucker of the series. “We had no script. It’s authentic and real, and what I’m feeling and seeing is what the viewer is feeling and seeing as well,” she said.
‘They don’t know any better’
In more than two decades of working in show business, Tucker has regularly encountered examples of antisemitism, she said.
Most commonly, people ask Tucker if she is “actually Jewish,” based on her appearance and her name, she said.
“What does that even mean, when someone says I don’t look Jewish or have a Jewish-sounding name,” said Tucker, who added she’s offended by comedians who tell jokes about any minority group.
In recent years, Tucker has lost thousands of TikTok followers for posting about her family’s Holocaust story, she said.
“You’re trying to make us feel bad for Jews,” was typical of negative comments posted in response to her Holocaust-related videos, said Tucker.
Earlier this month, Tucker was attacked online after standing up to NBA star Kyrie Irving for his antisemitic posts, she said.
After Irving used Twitter to recommend a documentary filled with anti-Jewish vitriol, Tucker demanded the basketball player apologize and learn about the Holocaust through her family’s story.
For taking Irving to task, Tucker received lots of backlash, she said.
“The comments [people posted] were very scary,” said Tucker. “They don’t know any better, a lot of the people who look up to someone like Kyrie Irving. That is why it is so dangerous,” she said.
“How To: Never Forget” was produced by Israel Shachter and Rachel Kastner with SoulShop Studios, and funded in part by the Claims Conference. The docu-series coincides with the 10 days leading up to Kristallnacht, Nazi Germany’s November 1938 pogrom in which dozens of Jews were murdered and 20,000 young men sent to concentration camps.
“Many social media influencers have platforms and audiences we typically are not reaching with traditional Holocaust education campaigns. Holocaust education for the future needs to meet a younger generation where they are, and we need to utilize the means of communication that they use,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference, in a statement announcing the unusual partnership.
‘Never again, never forget’
Eight years ago, Tucker visited Israel for the first time on a Birthright Israel trip. Although she was already proud of her Jewish identity, participating in Birthright brought Tucker’s connection to a new level, she said.
“It was like a family there. You instantly have this crazy connection,” said Tucker of her 2014 Birthright trip. “I absolutely need to get back,” she said.
Much of her Jewish identity comes from her Holocaust survivor grandparents, said Tucker.
“My grandparents were my everything,” said Tucker. “It was so important for them to be proud of being Jewish. My Zaidi wore a pin that said, ‘Never again, never forget.'”
According to tour guide Jeffay, Tucker was fully immersed in learning all she could about the life of her relatives before the war and during the genocide.
“Montana is deeply connected to her grandparents, both as Holocaust survivors but also as role models in her life who she cares for deeply,” said Jeffay. “At that level it was an amazing experience to accompany someone through the stories that have clearly been so formative in her life,” Jeffay told The Times of Israel.
“A particular moving moment was to be able to find seven members of her extended family who were murdered in [the former death camp] Belzec, who the family had no idea had existed,” added Jeffay.
On social media, Tucker is known for her anti-bullying stance and partnering with, for example, performers with disabilities. An accomplished recording artist, Tucker’s most popular song is called “Be Myself,” an anthem for anyone who has ever been bullied.
“People should be proud of where they came from and who they are, not afraid to show it,” said Tucker.
‘Such a beautiful country’
In recent interviews with “People” magazine and other media outlets, Tucker spoke of her week in Poland as the most rewarding, but most challenging experience of her life.
The trip’s emotional epicenter came at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Tucker’s grandmother saw her parents for the last time. They were among the one-million Jews murdered in gas chambers at Birkenau, including hundreds of thousands of children.
“With my mother, I stood where her mother saw her parents for the last time,” said Tucker, who spoke about the incongruity of visiting Holocaust sites in Poland.
“It was shocking to me that it is such a beautiful country,” said Tucker. “It’s such a crazy thing to know so much darkness was there and that many of these [killing sites] were surrounded with homes and apartment buildings, people living their normal lives,” said Tucker.
In one encounter that does not appear in the docu-series, Tucker met a Polish man who has been the caretaker of an abandoned synagogue for decades, she said.
“He learned Hebrew on his own to take care of it,” said Tucker. “He’s done it for 20 years and said he feels no one else will do it if he does not. He didn’t want there to be only stories of hate,” said Tucker.
By all accounts, the arrival of Tucker’s docu-series could not be more timely. With antisemitic attacks and incidents in the news daily, the series is exposing adolescents to the outcome of hatred left unchecked.
“Montana refuses to be one of the social media personalities who hides or masks their Judaism and their identity,” said Jeffay. “For young Jews and young people everywhere she is promoting through the series a real sense of pride in who you are and where you come from,” he said.
In addition to having several films in the works, Tucker is planning a “Kindness” concert for January 15 in Florida. The gathering will combine Holocaust education with messages of being kind to each other, said the influencer, who is committed to expanding awareness of the Holocaust on as many stages as possible.
“This is our responsibility and having one person see [the docu-series] makes a difference,” said Tucker. “The series is opening people’s eyes and showing you can do good on social media, too.”
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