Brow Beat

Do Holocaust Stories Belong on Instagram?

Eva Stories wants to tell the Holocaust’s history to the smartphone generation.

A scene from Eva Stories.
A scene from Eva Stories. Screenshot from @Eva.Stories

“What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?” the promo read, popping up as an advertisement on my account as I swiped through my friends’ Instagram stories. The text abruptly cut to a video clip of a girl in a beret, turning her phone camera on herself and her friends as they lick an ice cream cone, pose with their tongues out, and then hop up and down repeatedly in a gleeful GIF. The vignettes were from an account called @Eva.Stories, and if I were a 13-year-old scrolling through my friends’ posts, Eva’s probably wouldn’t have looked hugely different from the others. Except that Eva, a budding teen reporter, lived in World War II–era Hungary, and would have her life ended months later at Auschwitz.

Eva Stories, a narrative project that launched on Wednesday and played through Thursday morning, was the brainchild of Mati Kochavi, an Israeli tech executive, and his daughter, Maya.* They based Eva’s story, which unfolds over 70 snippets on her ersatz Instagram, on the diary of the real Eva Heyman, whose entries documented the dissolution of her bourgeois life after the Nazis invaded her hometown in 1944. By transmuting Eva’s pen and paper into a smartphone, the project fixed its sights on younger generations who are savvy about social media but increasingly ignorant of the Holocaust: It aimed to put the Shoah in a language young people would understand.

Rendering the mass murder of 6 million Jews more engaging, more consumable, more cyber was not going to be without controversy. “The path from Eva’s Story to selfie-taking at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau is short and steep,” read an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Social media reactions were full of snark too: “Where does she charge her phone?” wrote an Instagram commenter, according to Haaretz. “Nothing is sacred,” someone else tweeted. But others, like Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, actress Gal Gadot, and comedian Sarah Silverman supported the project, urging people to follow @Eva.Stories and watch. And people did: Even before the story launched, the account had ballooned to more than 200,000 followers; on Thursday, it reached 1 million.

Eva’s narrative, which played on Instagram Stories and was permanently saved to the account’s Story Highlights, begins in relative peacetime. Eva introduces us to her grandparents and her best friend Annie and, from afar, shows us the cute boy she has a crush on. Eva hangs out at her grandfather’s pharmacy, where Annie gives her a “love potion” made of gold glitter. The videos are charming, if cutesy, often decorated with app add-ons like hashtags, location tags, stickers, and emoji. But the silliness is flecked with anxiety. When we meet Eva’s papa, she calls him “just as handsome as an Aryan,” before bragging, “One day, when I get older, I’ll marry an Aryan Englishman.” Later, while Eva fools around on the sidewalk, we can just make out a passerby muttering “dirty Jew” and see Eva’s face fall before she shuts off her camera. We watch as her freedoms dissolve one by one, until her family is carted off to a ghetto.

A screenshot from @Eva.Stories
Screenshot from @Eva.Stories

The power of Instagram, and the reason it makes for a punchy story medium, lies in its immediacy. When Eva addresses the camera, she speaks freely in intimate close-up. Mia Quiney, the British actress who plays Eva, is capable of toggling between a charming, breezy adolescence and tangible rage and fear when things get dark. Her naturalism is amplified by the story’s structure: Scenes last minutes or seconds, allowing us to experience a full revolution of mood over just a few moments. When Eva’s mother sews a yellow star on Eva’s favorite peacoat, her response is to scream and thrash like a petulant child. “This isn’t me,” she cries, fretting that the kids at school will make fun of her. Seconds later, Eva’s wearing the star in a quiet selfie video, staring into the camera coolly.

The project’s set design and costumes are faithful to 1944 Hungary, with the notable exception of Eva’s smartphone—the only one that exists in the world of the story. Since our narrator is alone in using the device, the story feels less like a modern, fantastical update on the Holocaust—like Inglourious Basterds or Life Is Beautiful—than a highly stylized slice of it. The project brings to mind the 2015 film Son of Saul, which was similarly shot in intimate close-up—and, despite its eventual Oscar win, drew equal criticism for depicting the Holocaust in an “entertaining” form.

Not long after the end of World War II, the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno posited that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno later retracted the statement, but it gestures at the overwhelming challenge of approaching the Holocaust’s horrors as an artist. While the war bred documentaries and Hollywood-style propaganda films to support the Allied war effort, depicting the Holocaust seemed to require a dignity and gravitas that felt too massive for ordinary cultural tools. But slowly, art crept into the void, helping to commemorate the troubling past and confront lingering pain. Yet even now, each time a new work that touches on the Holocaust is released, it becomes the subject of scrutiny: Does it sensationalize its material? Does it trivialize it? Does it offer insight? We’re right to ask these questions, about Eva Stories and everything else.

Screenshot from @Eva.Stories
Screenshot from @Eva.Stories

When I first saw Eva’s promo ad on Instagram, I was skeptical. The project seemed blasé and inappropriate, not to mention pathetically out of touch in its presumption that Instagram is the only way to reach young people. My suspicions were partially confirmed when I began watching. A clumsy early scene in which Eva’s young cousin is deported to Poland feels both stagy and awkwardly abrupt, as if the episode were being improvised by school kids on a playground. The Instagram frills—like the hashtags #lifeduringwar and #reporterlife, which are both repeatedly appended—can also be cringy, and were so obviously engineered by adults that they come to function like a Brechtian distancing device, taking us out of a scene when they should be adding to its teenage realism.

But slowly, Eva Stories won me over. The character of Eva does most of the work, both through Quiney’s performance and Eva’s identity as an aspiring journalist, a detail that was lifted from Eva Heyman’s real journal entries. This job ambition becomes the narrative driver behind Eva’s incessant smartphone recording (hence #reporterlife), which helps to justify the inherent queasiness of her whipping out her phone while soldiers harass her family. By the time Eva crams onto the train that will take her to Auschwitz, we’ve gained a real sense of her life. She was a normal, silly, happy kid—one among millions whose lives were ruined and cut short. The smartphone is an obvious embellishment to this history, but Eva Stories isn’t inventing a new past; it’s retrieving a truth about these kids’ existence.

Every day, appalling, terrible things are conveyed to me through my iPhone, arriving on Twitter or Facebook or news apps. Typically, I look to Instagram for fun stuff—cute animals, delicious food, friends, fashion, art. It’s understandable that, for many, it would be jarring to see this safe, superficial space merge with war and suffering. But that jarring-ness is part of the point. The Holocaust’s memory is a painful one, but these days, it is perhaps more painful to realize that it might not persist, that as the atrocities grow further away in the rearview and fewer survivors remain, the Holocaust is liable to lose resonance. While watching Eva, I kept thinking of a story that’s told at Passover during one of the best-known parts of the Seder. It identifies a “Rebellious Son” as a child who asks his parents, “What is this service to you?” and thus separates himself from his community. The Seder story’s goal—to teach kids to feel engaged in their culture so that the Jewish memory doesn’t fade—is the same as the mission of Eva Stories. Like Eva herself, the project is reporting from a new frontier of difficult storytelling, and its timing is crucial.

Correction, May 3, 2019: This post originally misstated that Mati Kochavi and his daughter, Maya, both live in Israel. Maya has spent most of her life in New York.