When German Israeli-born satirist Shahak Shapira’s “Yolocaust” project went viral, I asked myself what it meant to juxtapose photographs of people enjoying themselves at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial against mountains of dead bodies in concentration camps.

Shapira’s artistic intervention occurred at a specific political moment in Germany. As the country marks International Holocaust Memorial day on January 27, Björn Höcke, a representative of right-nationalist party Alternative for Germany has criticised the memorial. “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital,” he said.

“He should see these photos,” Shapira said in an interview about his project.

Contested site: Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial opened in 2005. Image Credit: Reuters

For me, the fact that Shapira’s work hit such a nerve is more interesting than the technique and images used, or indeed any message one may glean from the contrast of smiling faces, posing bodies and dead bodies. I do not think that it fights the trivialization of Holocaust memory.

Shapira’s work has been described as a form of public shaming, and to an extent, it worked: people spoke about it in relation to the right and wrong ways to remember the Holocaust. Shapira says on the Yolocaust website that some of the people pictured apologised and asked him to remove the photos, as well as removing themselves from the social networks where he first found them.

Knowing your place

In my book about action at the Berlin memorial (2013), I claim that people engage with the site through a performance of moral transformation. That is, the actions visitors perform at the memorial are not necessarily related to the memory of the Holocaust, but instead to memories of rituals related to Holocaust memory.

Anthropologist Jackie Feldman has suggested in a personal conversation about Yolocaust that the project is an example of ritual failure. Most visitors know they have to perform some kind of transformation at the site: if they are seen failing to transform or celebrate in public, then they have failed to act appropriately. This failure is discussed in ethical terms in the case of the Holocaust Memorial.

This is not a new thing. The memorial has been very popular and contested for the fact that it is abstract and thus facilitating activities not associated with Holocaust memory since it opened in 2005.

In the course of my ethnographic research at the Holocaust Memorial in 2005-’06, I often heard staff at the memorial say, “People do not know where they are.” Such a judgement is surely one of the intended results of Yolocaust.

In this way, the project acts as a finger pointed at those who often very well know where they are, and play with the boundaries of right and wrong in relation to the site. They probably would not be compelled to do so at other sites dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, for example in the underground Information Centre at the Holocaust Memorial because those sites are historical or authentic.

The memorial’s architect Peter Eisenman responded accordingly in reaction to the Yolocaust project in drawing a distinction between the Berlin memorial and burial sites.

Facilitating discussion?

Shapira himself claims he wishes to engage people in a discussion of right and wrong in Holocaust memory. Such discussions have been prevalent in Germany as well as in Israel for a while. Of course, as Amos Goldberg writes in a piece on the Jewish Narrative of Yad Vashem, right and wrong within the Israeli narrative of Holocaust memory created identification with Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and positions Israel as the historical response to the Holocaust.

In saying that it is “a shame that there are people who don’t care,” and in quoting a few Yolocaust project responses who said that he helped facilitate this respect Shapira enacted the Israeli narrative on the Holocaust from an arguably higher moral position of a Jew from the land that Jews went to after the Holocaust. This is a position from which one can shame those who misbehave at the Holocaust memorial, then help them correct their ways and realise their failure.

Image Credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Germany and Israel are not the only countries that institute a national memory narrative. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC also poses ethical questions to visitors and demands that, following their museum visit, they ask themselves how they can take action to prevent genocide around the world. The museum thus makes a direct link between learning about the past and civic action in the present and future.

We can ask whether Shapira’s project generates the same movement from memory to action, encouraging those who see it to stand up against the threat of genocide, racism and discrimination.

Moral transformations

While we cannot presume that seeing horrifying photos of dead Jews constitutes “Holocaust memory”, it surely is moving. And the moral transformation that visitors are meant to perform while visiting, as I argue in my book, is through emotional engagement, especially the revelation of feelings.

Visitors know they have to “act sad”. After walking in the memorial, German visitors often say, “maybe this is how the Jews felt”.

When memorial workers encountered behaviour that seemed inappropriate, they reacted by saying that people do not know where they are, or how important this project is “for Germans”. It is the moral career of Germans vis-a-vis the memory of the Holocaust that can be positively performed or fail – the transformation as well as its ritual.

Shapira directed his work at Germans, who are the majority of visitors at the site, among people from many other nationalities that stumble into or intend to visit it: “These people should be the ones to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive”.

Civic engagement

I do believe that some forms of civic engagement opened up with the inauguration of this Memorial and others adjacent to it, dedicated to the memory of other victims of Nazi persecution, such as LGBT people, Sinti and Roma, and people with disabilities

This new “memorial quarter” opens up what I call “spheres of speakability” about Holocaust memory, through which alliances against racism and discrimination and new public spaces for engagement with memory were developed.

Berlin’s Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime. Image Credit: Kyle Taylor, CC BY

Much of what actually happens at Holocaust memorials, as Yolocaust exposes, is not worthy of celebration. At the same time, it is not necessarily worthy of public shaming. It leaves unfulfilled the modes of engagement that could be possible with the memory of the Holocaust and action against racism and discrimination in the present.

Irit Dekel, Lecturer, University of Virginia.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.