A teenage girl chooses an image of the shadows belonging to 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 this site. The image is indeed poignant and thought-provoking. It is also simple, understated, and subtle – the exact opposite of the heavy-handed and emotionally-drenched imagery which makes the majority of this YouTube-compiled documentary.
#uploading_holocaust documents what has become Rite-of-Passage for many Israeli high schoolers – an Education Ministry supervised excursion to Poland’s Nazi extermination camps and killing grounds. The students are accompanied by teachers and professional Israeli guides, sometimes even Holocaust survivors – although this happens less and less, as most are no longer alive. The rationale of the Journey to Poland, as these trips are called, is fairly clear: to give teenagers a first-hand opportunity to see where six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust – an essential part of Jewish history and Israeli school curriculum. But, what happens, when gas chambers and train boxcars are used as classrooms? What educational objectives are achieved, and do these lead to any unintended consequences?
We are supposed to feel something heavy.
To answer these questions, filmmakers Sagi Bornstein and Udi Nir compiled a 70-minute documentary based entirely on YouTube footage uploaded by the numerous participants of these trips. The only original content added by the filmmakers is some opening text and an original film score.
As #uploading_holocaust makes clear, quite often the tour guides and teachers are not 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 making 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 also make the students stand inside the still-intact gas chambers, as they describe how victims “clawed at the ceiling as they were consumed by the poisonous gases”; and ask the teenagers to march briskly from one location to another, whilst making them imagine what it would have been like to be there for real.
Numerous scenes show the students breaking down in tears, often crying uncontrollably. In the midst of all this, the students, many of whom are on their first overseas trip, marvel at the lovely hotels they are staying in, and talk to the camera in vlogs where they try to describe their feelings – or lack thereof. “We are supposed to feel something heavy,” one student comments, early on in her trip. She notes that she is frustrated to not be experiencing what is expected of her. Some decide to take the obsession with “feeling things” to an absurd extreme: sitting on the grass on a cold, wintry day in Poland, a group of 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 questions the preparations that were made prior to the trip, as some students were apparently encouraged to bring large Israeli flags which they drape over their shoulders – a bit like superhero capes – as they march through the camps. Several comment that they see this display of patriotism as payback to the Nazi regime which tried to annihilate their ancestors. Perhaps. But is it really necessary to bring this type of football-stadium atmosphere to a somber memorial site?
The Journey to Poland trips, in their current format, are increasingly criticised by a growing number of Israelis, with many suggesting that the trips are 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 each other. This line of criticism is very present in director Yoav Shamir’s film Defamation (2009), in which he accompanies an Israeli group to Poland. Shamir suggests here that the trips tend to cloud the way young Israelis see Germans and East Europeans today. Indeed, the way the students are shunted in isolation from one Holocaust site after another, is akin to how some tourists only visit Israel’s holy Christian sites and leave the country without having had a single conversation with a local Israeli.
#uploading_holocaust may very well serve as a wake-up call to Israeli parents to change the way these trips are handled. But, adjusting the trips would only constitute half the battle. As suggested in a scene in the film, where a young German woman approaches a group of Israeli students, this 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 to the Israelis’ coats. The hearts, she explains, contrast with the yellow Star of David badges the Jews were forced by the Nazis to wear. How widespread are such feelings among today’s young Germans? How do German educators inform youngsters about 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 form the story for an entirely different film.