Just after my sophomore year of high school, I went on a school trip to Eastern Europe, traveling from country to country by a charter bus with a terrible driver named Jerry. When I say terrible, I mean we made a U-turn in the middle of the highway—the Autobahn actually.
One day of the three weeks we spent traveling through the countryside of Poland, we went to Auschwitz.
I won’t spend this blog post talking about the things I saw and the emotions I felt at the concentration camp because the experience was literally indescribable. I believe that even words have epistemological limits, and this sort of experience falls right outside those literary parameters.
Instead, I want to consider the controversy of social media at memorial sites such as Auschwitz.
There was a railroad that ran right through the center of the camp. “Shelters”—for a lack of a better word—lined the tracks that still remain. If you google the camp, it’s the first picture that will pop up under images. It’s one of those iconic pictures, and all tourists want to snap this exact picture.
The German government knows that and has placed a few poles that act as a center point to help tourists line their camera up exactly in the middle of the tracks, pointing toward the train station in order to get the best shot possible.
This is all pretty weird—a permanent point helping tourists take a picture of literally hell on earth. Why do people want a picture of Auschwitz in their files?
But my story gets even weirder. I will never forget what the bunks looked like, the barbed fence, the gate with “arbeit macht frei” across the top, the execution wall, the inside of the gas chambers, and the girl standing in front of the railroad tracks, smiling for a picture. Smiling for a picture at a concentration camp.
Not only was it odd, her actions were wildly inappropriate and off-putting. Yes, people took pictures. I took pictures, but of only a handful of buildings, never inside a structure. But no one posed for a picture. No one smiled on the premise of Auschwitz.
If any kind of protocols exist for pictures at memorial sites, the rule against smiling is red, underlined, bold and italicized. End of story.
But with social media ingrained so deeply in our society, people will inevitably post pictures of where they are and what they are doing, even if this means posting pictures of a memorial site like Auschwitz.
In my opinion, this is not a bad thing. Social media is a means of conversation, public announcement, revolution and preservation. On social media, we catch up with friends, hear what our President and other world leaders have to say (even the Pope), stand up for our rights with hashtags and remember who we have lost to tragedies as in the millions of people in the Holocaust.
Auschwitz is a memorial site—a memorial dedicated to the 6 million Jews and those affected by such devastating catastrophe. It’s a landmark to remember—remember what savagery and wickedness mankind is capable of. History has a tendency to repeat itself. As scary as it is to think about it, this is up to us to stop anything with signs of genocide.
Social media is actually a great tool to spread this awareness and remembrance globally. Posting on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat is not disrespectful. It may follow a bikini picture of the girl you hated in high school or the latte art from your neighbor, but it’s reaching more people than you think. It’s reaching the people that may not be able to visit the memorial site in their lifetime, but with this picture, your picture, because of social media, you have an intensified ability to spread remembrance and respect for those who suffered.