A group of Israeli high school students visiting a concentration camp in Poland, midway through the film #uploading_holocaust, are asked to select the one photo of the trip that is the most meaningful to them. A teenage girl presents a photo that shows the shadows of a group of people standing outside. She explains her choice by saying that her generation lives in the shadows of the events that took place at that site. The image is indeed poignant and thought-provoking. It also is simple, understated, and subtle — the absolute opposite of the heavy-handed and emotionally-drenching imagery that makes up most of this Youtube-compiled documentary.
#uploading_holocaust documents what has become a rite-of-passage for many Israeli high schoolers – an Education Ministry supervised excursion to the sites of Nazi extermination camps and killing grounds in Poland. The students are accompanied by teachers and professional Israeli guides, and sometimes even Holocaust survivors – though that is less and less the case as so few are still alive. The rationale of the Journey to Poland, as the trips are called, is fairly clear: to give teenagers a first-hand opportunity to see the places where six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust – an essential part of Jewish history and of the core Israeli school curriculum. What happens though, when gas chambers and train boxcars are used as classrooms? What educational objectives are achieved and are there any unintended consequences?
To answer these questions, filmmakers Sagi Bornstein and Udi Nir have compiled a 70 minute documentary based entirely on footage that has been uploaded to Youtube by numerous participants in these trips. The only original content added by the filmmakers is some opening text and original music.
As #uploading_holocaust makes clear, quite often the tour guides and teachers aren’t satisfied with merely conveying the dry facts. They are eager to ensure that the youngsters undergo an emotional experience. Some of the guides insist on having the students crowd into the preserved wooden boxcars as they explain how the overcrowding caused many of the victims to perish en route to the camps; they have the students stand inside intact gas chambers, as they describe how the victims “clawed at the ceiling as they were consumed by the poisonous emissions”; and they ask the teenagers to march briskly from one location to another, all the while asking them to try to imagine what it would have been like for they themselves to have been there.
There are numerous scenes of students breaking down into tears, often crying uncontrollably. In between all this, the students, many of whom are on their first overseas trip away from home, marvel at the handsome conditions in the hotels where they are staying and talk to the camera in vlogs where they try to describe their feelings – or lack of feelings. “We are supposed to feel something heavy,” says one student early on in her trip, noting that she is seemingly frustrated to not be experiencing what is expected of her. One group of students even decides to take the obsession with “feeling things” to an absurd extreme: sitting on the grass on a cold wintry Polish day the students remove layer after layer of clothing until they can proudly say to the camera that they now “know what it was like”.
The film also calls into question the preparations that were made prior to the trip, in which some students were apparently encouraged to bring with them large Israeli flags which they drape over their shoulders – like Superman capes — as they march through the camps. Several comment that they see this display of patriotism as vindication of the Nazi regime that tried to annihilate their forebearers. Perhaps. But is it really necessary to bring this football-stadium atmosphere to a somber memorial site?
The Journey to Poland trips, in their current format, have been increasingly criticized by a growing number of Israelis, many of whom suggest that the trips be balanced with visits to sites that celebrate the vitality of Jewish life in Poland – a country where Jewish culture flourished for centuries – and that attempts be made to let Israeli and Polish youngsters get to know one another. This line of criticism is very present in director Yoav Shamir’s film Defamation (2009), in which he accompanies an Israeli group to Poland. In Defamation, Shamir suggests that the trips tend to cloud the way young Israelis see Germans and East Europeans today. Indeed, the way that the students are shunted in isolation from one Holocaust site to another, is similar to the way some tourists in Israel exclusively visit holy Christian sites and leave the country without having a single conversation with a local Israeli.
#uploading_holocaust may very well serve as a wake-up call for Israeli parents who can do something about how these trips are handled. But even if the trips are refined, that will only be half the battle. As suggested by a scene when a young German woman approaches a group of the students, there is another country with a stake in how its young people learn about the Holocaust.
The young German offers to pin yellow heart-shaped stickers on the Israelis’ coats. The hearts, she explains, are in contrast to the yellow Jewish stars that the Nazis forced the Jews to wear. How widespread are feelings of this kind among young Germans today? What attempts do German educators make to inform youngsters about the events of the Holocaust? Do some of their well-intentioned efforts turn out to be harmful?
A Youtube search with a few key tags might yield some interesting answers. But that would be a story for another film.