If you ever feel like losing faith in humanity, pay a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Just a block from the iconic Brandenburg gate and consisting of 2,711 black concrete stelae, architect Peter Eisenman’s creation is a stark testament to the Holocaust’s incomprehensible gravity. Walking through the labyrinthine warren of sloping, stone slabs, visitors are meant to pause and contemplate the confusion and fear that the memorial’s eponymous victims felt as they were taken from their homes, herded into ghettos and shipped off in cattle cars to the death camps.
At the memorial, you’ll lose your faith in humanity not because of its somber evocation of Nazi depravity—that isn’t exactly news—but in reaction to how your fellow humans behave. On any given day, visitors at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe will pose for intricately-staged selfies, play hide-and-go-seek, and—typically dreary Berlin weather permitting—sunbathe. And it isn’t just tourists who participate in this ritual desecration; EasyJet once published an eight-page fashion editorial in its in-flight magazine that featured models posing throughout the memorial.
This disgusting phenomenon, which I witnessed frequently while living in Berlin several years ago, has finally received the brutally mocking treatment it deserves in a new online art project entitled YOLOCAUST. Created by the Berlin-based Israeli satirist Shahak Shapira—whose grandfather, Amitzur Shapira, was one of those killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics—and utilizing the acronym for “You only live once,” the project features found pictures of people posing for selfies, practicing yoga, even juggling amid the memorial’s concrete blocks. Drag your mouse over the photographs, however, and the backgrounds will metamorphose from color representations of the memorial to black and white images featuring piles of corpses, with the blithe selfie star remaining in the foreground. “No historical event compares to the Holocaust,” Shapira writes in a sarcastic FAQ. “It’s up to you how to behave at a memorial site that marks the death of 6 million people.”
This is not the first art project to deal with selfies at the Berlin Holocaust memorial. In 2012, the Jewish Museum of New York staged Stelen (columns), by the artist Marc Adelman, which consisted of 150 portraits lifted from GayRomeo, a dating app. Exploring “the provocative transformation of a site of reverence into a social space where public remembrance collides with private desires,” or whatever issues Stelen meant to explore, was ultimately overshadowed by the Jewish Museum’s ill-considered decision to take it down in response to protests that it defiled the memory of the Shoah. (A cattier, more humorous approach to this phenomenon can be found at the now-defunct website “Grindr Remembers.”)
Whereas Stelen offered no judgement on the practice of using portraits taken at a Holocaust memorial to adorn an online dating profile that elsewhere details one’s fetishes, penis size, and preferred sexual position, YOLOCAUST treats them with the contempt they deserve. In so doing, it hearkens to another caustic Israeli mockery of moral cluelessness, “With my Besties in Auschwitz,” an erstwhile Facebook page that captioned happy-go-lucky photographs of Israeli teenagers touring the death camp with exclamations like, “Babes! I’m saving you a seat on the bus to Treblinka.”
Here I should note that, at least in my own experience, selfie-takers at the Holocaust memorial are rarely if ever Germans, who themselves have learned from their history perhaps better than any other people, and for whom making light of the Holocaust is still largely taboo. Yet that taboo is wearing off. The launch of YOLOCAUST coincides with a set of controversial remarks delivered by Björn Höcke, a leader of Alternative for Germany. This is a new political party that, should it enter the Bundestag after federal elections this fall (as it is widely expected to do), will become the first far-right party to enter parliament since the Second World War. Earlier this week, Höcke attacked the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, decrying how “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital.”
The entire German political establishment is predictably up in arms over Höcke’s outburst, but the best reply came from Shapira. “Berlin’s Holocaust memorial isn’t there for the Jews, or even the victims,” he told The Guardian. “It’s a moral compass for future generations, to warn them precisely about people such as Björn Höcke.”