‘Yolocaust’ tourists are shamed online over selfies at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 January, 2017, 1:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 January, 2017, 10:47pm

Built as a solemn place of reflection, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an undulating sea of stone blocks lined up like so many coffins on a sprawling patch of central Berlin. But in the look-at-me-age of Instagram and Facebook, it has also become something else.

The perfect backdrop for a selfie.

At a place honouring the memory of the Nazis’ victims, young laughing visitors hop from block to block, searching for the best angles. Some pose sensually atop the slabs for eye-candy shots on dating websites. One man had his picture taken between the stones while juggling.

Then someone said “Stop!”

That someone was best-selling author Shahak Shapira - a 28-year-old Israeli transplant to Berlin who launched a project that became an instant example of the power of the Internet to generate shame. He launched a website called “Yolocaust”, and used it to publish images of some of the worst offenders and then blended them into horrific backdrops of the Holocaust. The name of the site is a play on the slang “yolo”, an internet acronym for “you only live once”.

The effort went viral across Europe and beyond, becoming a stinging example of how record numbers of global tourists - particularly the young - have stripped revered sites of their gravitas.

“Look, this is not a place for fun selfies, and people need to know this,” he said. “No, it’s not ‘OK.’”

An up-and-coming comedian - and the descendant of a Holocaust survivor - Shapira said he has watched for years as visitors treated the memorial with disrespect. He put his project together, he said, after a neo-Nazi website ran a piece delighting in the selfie craze and what it called Berlin’s “hoax monument.”

He is all about irreverence - he hit the talk show circuit here by riffing on his life as a Jew in Germany. He arrived from Israel at age 14, brought by his mother and her German boyfriend. They settled, he said, in a small town in the former communist east, where he depicts existence for a young Jewish boy as a challenge.

During a school soccer match, he said, other kids teased him, warning he’d be sent to a concentration camp if he didn’t score a goal. He satirised his fate in a best-selling book roughly translated from German as “Tell It Like it Is: How I Became the Most German Jew in the World.”

But there should, he said, be limits to irreverence.

“The Holocaust is one of them,” he said.

The Yolocaust project went viral, and most of the original 12 photos he started with have since been taken down at the subject’s request. Most of those, he said, have also offered apologies.

“Sometimes you just need to give people a little push, and they get it,” he said.

His work as the memorial’s selfie shamer has divided observers. He became an overnight social-media sensation, with some saying he should be awarded a prize. But others ripped Shapira for using the images of Holocaust victims.

“If he wasn’t a Jew, one would have condemned him for this,” the author Mirna Funk wrote in Zeit Online.

Controversy has surrounded Berlin’s Holocaust memorial since its planning stages. In a speech at its 2005 inauguration, Paul Spiegel, then-president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, criticised it for being too abstract and failing to address the issue of guilt. Shortly after, the first reports emerged of people joyously jumping from stele to stele, prompting the publication Der Spiegel to ponder, “Is this what commemoration looks like?”

But the selfie obsession in recent years, critics say, appears to have pushed the problem to another level. During a visit to the memorial this week, tourists had written their names and messages including “I heart Berlin” into the snow on some of the lower slabs. Between the blocks, Louis, a 27-year-old Colombian tourist, had just finished taking a photo of himself with a selfie stick.

When asked if he felt some people might find that inappropriate, he quickly replied “I totally agree. This is a place that people should respect - I apologise,” before running off to his tour group.