The international conference “Connected Histories” explored “digital space as an abstract and unlimited archive for the mediation of the Holocaust”, and was the first conference held within the framework of EHRI-AT, the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure’s (EHRI) Austrian national consortium. The conference addressed several issues central to EHRI. Since its inception in 2010, EHRI has aimed to connect and link the fragmented European landscape of Holocaust research, commemoration, and education. In its current third stage it specifically aims at “developing new digital tools to connect dispersed Holocaust sources and relevant holdings” and to firmly anchor EHRI as a permanent institution. One part of this process is establishing national consortia, such as EHRI-AT. Although EHRI-AT’s first conference was dedicated to exploring digital space rather than the material world, it was purposely held in on-location in Vienna in the quaint atmosphere of the Kreisky Forum. This gave many of the participants the first chance in two years to meet and discuss in person. Nevertheless, the pandemic and travel restrictions necessitated some last-minute program changes.1
Welcome notes by the organizers DIRK RUPNOW (Innsbruck) and ÉVA KOVACS (Vienna) focused on the introduction of EHRI-AT and its consortium partners rather than on thematic key concepts or questions guiding the wide and at times confusing phenomenon of digitalization and its impact on Holocaust research and commemoration. To a degree, the participants’ papers, and the many lively discussions collectively filled this programmatic void. Eight highly connected panels (both in German and English) covered a wide range of topics and issues central to many aspects of Holocaust memory and memorialization in digital space. Unsurprisingly, almost every panel featured one or several case studies on social media and the Holocaust, while video games were, remarkably, not addressed at all. The speakers had diverse professional and academic backgrounds and represented a wide range of institutions, such as archives, museums, memorials, and universities.
Day 1 started with two panels on the “digitality of remembering and mediation” and on Holocaust memorials and their presence on social media. The first panel introduced a central term for the conference – “black box”. Not only are the mechanics of many digital algorithms, which shape digital Holocaust memory and narratives, unknown, but the process of digital mediation (and learning) itself is difficult to grasp for researchers. IRIS GROSCHEK (Neuengamme) and NICOLE STENG (Dachau) recounted the experiences they had made in their respective roles in two German Holocaust memorials during the lockdowns in 2020/21. Both institutions were confronted with the same problem: How could they engage with their audience and visitors, when these were no longer able to visit the memorial itself during the pandemic? While Dachau memorial offered livestreamed tours via Facebook, Neuengamme memorial joined TikTok, a social media platform popular with one of its core audiences, namely high school students. Neuengamme’s continuing efforts are part of the “TikTok – Shoah Education and Commemoration Initiative”, established by several German and Austrian Holocaust memorials and museums. The main challenges were to engage with their rapidly growing international follower-base, dealing with antisemitic and racist hate speech, and implementing interesting and platform-appropriate ways of storytelling. These two first-hand accounts sparked an animated discussion.
In her pointed introduction to the third panel, LALE YILDIRM (Osnabrück) stressed that memory and memorialization in digital space were neither new phenomena nor particularly new research fields. However, in her view, the ongoing pandemic had caused a particular urgency, as it accelerated and amplified previously existing contradictions. As the earlier panel had already demonstrated, this process provided both opportunities and serious challenges for the field. On the one hand, many institutions used the past two years to quickly transition into the digital space and produced participatory and emancipatory new digital offers – ranging from interactive Zoom workshops to virtual Holocaust exhibitions and social media campaigns. On the other hand, social media platforms, in particular Telegram groups, also became hotbeds for the dissemination of antisemitic, antidemocratic, and extremist propaganda in relation to the pandemic. Holocaust distortion was particularly widespread. The following papers by JULIANE BRAUER (Wuppertal) and SEBASTIAN BARSCH (Kiel) sparked several critical reactions. Brauer deliberated on the loss of plurality in the digital space through what she called “digitally staged secondary witnessing” – a curated and highly mediated from of Holocaust survivor testimony through digital means, rather than a diversity of narratives. Barsch followed with a pessimistic outlook on high school students’ capacity for critically evaluating digital information, based on an experiment he conducted. Comments from the audience emphasized that many of the raised issues, such as the need to select and edit material and narratives, that is to “curate” testimonies, were not new to the digital space and are common practice both for educators and scholars. In the following discussion, EVA PFANZELTER (Innsbruck) emphasized that digitality must be accepted as the living reality of teenagers and young adults and ARI JOSKOWICZ (Vienna) warned against underestimating their digital media literacy.
In the following panel VICTORIA WALDEN (Falmer) and MYKOLA MAKHORTYKH (Bern) presented results from their big data driven project #HashtagMemory. Their research primarily focuses on how the public audience interacted with social media campaigns and postings by institutions and stakeholders commemorating the Holocaust and the Srebrenica genocide in the year 2020. One rather sobering conclusion of their study was that there was little to no connectivity across and between institutional accounts and campaigns and that interactions with these campaigns happen on a superficial level. It thus remains an unresolved question, how to build and foster a genuine “memory culture” across social media.
The first day concluded with a thematically broad podium discussion. The podium brought together ANNA MENYHÉRT (Budapest), VEERLE VANDEN DAELEN (Mechelen) and GIORA ZWILLING (Bad Arolsen), each representing very different institutions and fields, and was moderated by Eva Pfanzelter and Dirk Rupnow. The discussants initially reflected on the meaning of digitality and public interaction for their respective fields. The key question of the conference was posed by Pfanzelter, namely how the community of Holocaust scholars and educators could leave their professional “bubble” and reach and interact with wider audiences by digital means. In response, Zwilling advocated for citizens’ science projects and interactivity as ways to engage with the public and to truly integrate them into the process of knowledge production. He recounted the overwhelmingly positive experiences of Arolsen Archives’ #everynamecounts campaign, which widely exceeded his expectation. However, he also acknowledged that developing and managing such campaigns and the necessary tools consumed considerable resources and had tilted the institutional focus towards the public. Rupnow observed that the field of Holocaust Studies/Education was traditionally dominated by a small number of big institutions, such as Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In recent years, smaller institutions have become more visible to the public, in part due to digitalization. EHRI’s vision of linking the big players with smaller institutions may thus evoke the fears of smaller and local institutions of being “swallowed” and becoming obsolete. In response, Zwilling emphasized the opportunities both for local and global institutions of linking their databases and thus allowing for the creation of more in-depth and interactive digital applications.
The second day started with three papers stemming from the Bochum and Hamburg based citizen’s science project “SocialMediaHistory – History on Instagram and TikTok”. MIA BERG (Bochum) introduced the project’s theoretical and methodological foundations and challenges. These challenges include a lack of technical knowledge in the Humanities, fundamental questions of privacy and data protection, and open and transparent access to the relevant data. ANDREA LORENZ (Hamburg) and VANESSA EISENHARDT (Bochum) followed with their papers on past-related hate speech in social media and on working with German pupils on cultures of memory in social media.
The following sixth panel showcased how Holocaust narratives can be reshaped by digital technology. MYKOLA MAKHORTYKH (Bern) presented results of a comparative algorithmic audit of six search engines when searching for the term “Holocaust”. He concluded that algorithms shape the public memory of the Holocaust in different ways, including by featuring results promoting Holocaust denial. A longitudinal monitoring of search engines would be needed to better understand in which ways this process unfolds. In the same panel, WOLFGANG SCHELLENBACHER (Vienna) introduced “Vienna Memento”, a work-in-progress online tool, which links existing databases on Holocaust victims and perpetrator sites with digital maps. SANNA STEGMAIER (London/Berlin) then reflected on the first German-language interactive biography produced by the USC Shoah Foundation’s controversial “Dimensions in Testimony” project. After describing in detail how these visual projections (often mistakenly called “holograms”) of recorded witnesses, which answer questions with the help of AI and ASR software, work, she covered the ethical and political implications of the paradoxical digital presence of an absent witness. Some of these aspects were further discussed afterwards such as the danger of the objectification of the witness or the role of a moderator when the projections are displayed.
TOMASZ ŁYSAK (Warsaw) critically analyzed the internet project “Yolocaust” by German-Israeli comedian Shahak Shapira in Panel 7. While he considered the project as highly problematic from an ethical standpoint, he also used it as an instructive example on how methods of digital humanities can be applied to research memory culture. Moreover, he considered it an illustrative example of the “economy of attention” that is particularly prevalent in social media. This dynamic of attention could also be observed in the second case presented by ARCHIE WOLFMAN (London), who introduced the internet phenomenon of the “Dybbuk Box”. Originally a marketing stunt by an online seller, who advertised an old piece of furniture as previously owned by a Holocaust survivor and possessed by a malevolent spirit from Jewish folklore, the “Dybbuk Box” has since sparked an entire “genre” of similar items sold through online platforms. Wolfman concluded that the phenomenon can be understood both as a commodification of the Holocaust but also as a unique way of remembrance. The last talk of this panel was held by LITAL HENIG (Jerusalem) who introduced her dissertation project on the remediation of the memory of Anne Frank.
The conference closed with a final panel on Citizen’s Science and grassroots initiatives. MARIA VISCONTI (Belo Horizonte) introduced NEPAT, a Brazilian Holocaust remembrance initiative, and BETH DOTAN (Lincoln) presented a Nebraskan digital archive, which brings together testimonies, stories and scattered archival material from all over the world in a unified framework.
In summary, the conference addressed many of EHRI-AT's core objectives: it brought together a wide range of representatives from different international institutions and was interdisciplinary in the best sense. The diverse backgrounds and perspectives of the participants sparked and enriched many interesting and controversial discussions. It was particularly enriching to have both researchers and practitioners present their experiences and findings. However, it also turned out that the field still lacks a common terminology and a unifying theoretical basis for discussing digitality and digital space and for analyzing these phenomena. Methodologically, too, there is still a long way to go: Many of the case studies presented concluded that there was a lack of data and data access, as well as the necessary technical infrastructures and methods for evaluation. Algorithms, artificial intelligence, and deep learning, by and large, remain “black boxes” that elude the analytical gaze of the Humanities, as several participants noted. As the CfP rightly stated “it is not always established institutions that are using the technical possibilities of the internet to their fullest extent”. Holocaust remembrance institutions are, as the conference contributions have shown, not the dominant voices and actors in the vast digital space. It remains an open question whether they ever could and should be, and if so, how that could be accomplished.
Ursula Brustmann (Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research, Austria), Éva Kovács (Vienna Wiesenthal Institute), Eva Pfanzelter & Dirk Rupnow (University of Innsbruck)
Panel 1: Digitalität von Erinnerung und Vermittlung
Chair: Victoria Kumar (erinnern.at)
Gerald Lamprecht (Universität Graz): Digital Mapping – Digital Memory. Die Digitale Erinnerungslandschaft Österreich
Grit Oelschlegel (Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien): Digitale Vermittlung – Vermittlung digital. Zur didaktischen (Un-) Steuerbarkeit von digitalen Lernprozessen
Edith Blaschitz (Universität für Weiterbildung Krems) & Heidemarie Uhl (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften): Digital und vor Ort – Spuren lesbar machen am Beispiel des NS-Zwangsarbeitslagers Roggendorf/Pulkau (NÖ)
Panel 2: Holocaust museums’ modes of commemoration and interaction on social media
Chair: Florian Schwanninger (Lern- und Gedenkstätte Schloss Hartheim)
Iris Groschek (KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme) & Nicole Steng (KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau): Online-tours and TikTok videos – Are we sure this is a good idea? Considerations and experiences on the use of social media by some German Holocaust museums and memorials
Marta Testa (Florence): How digital technologies support the fight against Holocaust distortion and denial. An Italian case study
Panel 3: Durch die NS-Geschichte scrollen. Die Transformation historischen Lernens über NS-Geschichte und Holocaust im digitalen Raum
Chair: Lale Yildirim (Freie Universität Berlin)
Juliane Brauer (Bergische Universität Wuppertal): „Zeitmaschine“ social media. Wie die Pluralität von Erinnerung im digitalen Raum verschwindet
Sebastian Barsch (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel): Mehr als schöne Bilder: Digital Storytelling zwischen Empowerment und Überwältigung
Dario Treiber (Bergische Universität Wuppertal): „Man fühlt sich persönlich mit ihr verbunden und durchfühlt die Angst die Wut, die Verzweiflung“ – Emotionen bei der Rezeption von @ichbinsophiescholl
Panel 4: Social Media and the ethics of Holocaust remediation
Chair: Marianne Windsperger (VWI)
Victoria Walden (University of Sussex) & Mykola Makhortykh (Universität Bern): Hashtag Memory – Public Engagement with Genocide Commemoration Events during Covid-19 Lockdowns
Josefine Honke (Universität Konstanz): Deutsche Zeitzeug:innen des Nationalsozialismus auf YouTube – Neue Erinnerungsmedien mit alten Inszenierungsmitteln
Panel discussion: Archives, digital technologies, networking and public interaction
Moderation: Eva Pfanzelter & Dirk Rupnow (University of Innsbruck)
Anna Menyhért (VWI), Veerle Vanden Daelen (Kazerne Dossin), Giora Zwilling (Arolsen Archives)
Panel 5: „Ist das die echte Anne Frank?” – Perspektiven auf die Erzählung, Analyse und Vermittlung des Holocaust in den sozialen Medien
Chair: Mirjam Wilhelm (VWI)
Mia Berg (Ruhr Universität Bochum): #Demokratisierung – Holocaustgeschichte in sozialen Medien partizipativ erzählen und erforschen
Andrea Lorenz (Universität Hamburg): #Interdisziplinarität – Vergangenheitsbezogene Hate Speech in den sozialen Medien analysieren
Vanessa Eisenhardt (Bochum): #MeinNaziHintergrund – Soziale Medien als Möglichkeit, das Narrativ der kollektiven Unschuld aufzubrechen und anders zu vermitteln?
Panel 6: Re-shaping Holocaust narratives with digital technology
Chair: Éva Kovács (VWI)
Mykola Makhortykh (Universität Bern): Can an algorithm remember the Holocaust? Comparative algorithmic audit of Holocaust-related information on search engines
Wolfgang Schellenbacher (Dokumentationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstands): New Insights on the Holocaust in Austria from Geo-Referenced and Mapped Victims Databases
Sanna Stegmaier (King’s College London): Transnational convergences and implicated audiences of Holocaust memory in the first German-language interactive biography of the USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony project
Panel 7: Virality and the remediation of Holocaust remembrance
Chair: Olaf Terpitz (Universität Graz)
Tomasz Łysak (University of Warsaw): Yolocaust or how to approach digital commemoration
Archie Wolfman (Queen Mary University of London): The dybbuk box as case-study of digital network memory of the Holocaust: From Yiddish folklore to Hollywood horror to Internet virality
Lital Henig (Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Relational Anne – The remediation of Holocaust diaries in digital media
Panel 8: Participatory Collaboration: Citizen Science in practice
Chair: Benjamin Grilj (Institut für jüdische Geschichte Österreichs)
Maria Visconti (Brazilian Center for Nazism and Holocaust Studies): Mediating and transmitting Holocaust memory on social media in Brazil
Giora Zwilling (Arolsen Archives): On #everynamecounts - a crowdsourcing initiative of the Arolsen Archives
Beth Dotan (University of Nebraska–Lincoln): The Impact of the Nebraska Collective Memory of the Holocaust via Digital Exploration
1 A selection of the recorded presentations is available at: https://www.uibk.ac.at/zeitgeschichte/connectedhistories2022/programm.html.de (12.09.2022).