Provocative Holocaust Site Spurs Questions on Young Germans' Changing Views

"Yolocaust" superimposed present-day selfies over Holocaust images.

January 27, 2017, 10:51 AM

— -- The selfies superimposed over images of Holocaust victims were meant to shock people into examining their possibly flippant attitude toward one of history’s worst genocides.

Yolocaust, an online satire project launched last week, pulled images from social media and dating apps showing smiling people at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial and pasted them over jarring images of Nazi atrocities.

The website, whose name derives from the acronym of the phrase “you only live once,” went viral and has prompted debate in Germany about the appropriateness of using such images and whether generations increasingly removed from World War II still appreciate the magnitude of the mass murder of millions that took place under German orders just seven decades ago. An international day of Holocaust commemoration is being marked today.

Researchers told ABC News polling shows that a rising number of young Germans feel that too much time is spent studying the Holocaust. Their declining interest stems in part from the dwindling numbers of Holocaust survivors still living, researchers told ABC News.

“It’s becoming more historical, so we need to tell the young people why it’s important to care and learn about the Holocaust,” said Habbo Knoch, a history professor in Cologne, Germany, who was from 2008 to 2014 in charge of the memorial at the site of the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Views about the Holocaust have shifted against a backdrop of growing support for right-wing nationalist politicians in Germany. A right-wing party leader last week referred to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as "a monument of shame,” prompting outrage amid his party’s electoral success.

“The question of how to confront this increasing ignorance or distance — I don’t really think we have the perfect solution,” Jacob Eder, a historian who researches 20th-century German history at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, told ABC News.

The Berlin memorial is integrated into the cityscape a block from the Brandenburg Gate, designed to allow visitors to wander in and out of its 2,700 concrete slabs that are intended to convey the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes. But it has also attracted sunbathers and parkour enthusiasts.

Its photogenic pillars have popped up in on the Tinder and Grindr dating apps, drawing scorn online. In the case of gay-oriented Grindr, though, some of those at the site have said their intention was to commemorate the Holocaust, in which gay people were among those targeted.

Not all of those featured in the photographs on the Yolocaust site were necessarily German. Some had comments in English alongside their photos. Knoch said the apparent lack of respect for the Holocaust memorial could be seen as an international phenomenon. But he added that selfies were not always a mark of bad behavior. Even before the smartphone era, he said, visitors took photos at memorial sites, often as a way to document their personal connection to the tragedy.

“I don’t think it’s disrespectful to take a few pictures of yourself or playing around in the area,” Christoph Kolbert, a 24-year-old student at Humboldt University in Berlin, told ABC News, as he visited the memorial Thursday. “There’s a difference between enjoying yourself and being totally disrespectful.”

The Berlin-based Israeli artist behind the project, Shahak Shapira, said in a statement posted Thursday that his plan to publicly shame people had, in fact, worked.

All photos were gone from the site as of Thursday. Shapira said all 12 of the subjects had learned about the project, which had provided an email address for those who wanted their photos taken down.

“Almost all of them understood the message, apologized and decided to remove their selfies from their personal Facebook and Instagram profiles,” wrote Shapira, who did not respond to requests for comment from ABC News.

Matthias Elwardt, a 52-year-old architect visiting the Berlin Holocaust memorial Thursday, told ABC News he understood the backlash. He said he had visited the memorial several times since it opened in 2005.

“I wouldn't want to be taking selfies or any kind of funny pictures there,” Elwardt said. “It could easily offend people.”

ABC News’ Troy McMullen contributed reporting from Berlin.