Saturday, January 23, 2010

Facebook Holocaust Memorials

At the recent 'unconference' at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum some of us had a fascinating conversation on the phenomenon of a Facebook site erected as a virtual memorial to the child Henio ┼╗ytomirski, born 1933, who died in the Majdanek death camp:

The case has been widely discussed on line, including this blog entry

The site emerged out of a series of commemorative projects in Poland, including initiatives in which schoolchildren and passersby were encouraged to write letters to the long dead child. (For background see:

Those posting on the site (especially on its "Wall" ) at times speak in the voice of the dead person, in the first person, recounting the victim's hopes and dreams, and sometimes the circumstances of his or her death. The issue of web based memorials has been of particular concern to the museum staff given that at times photographs of the dead (gleaned from the Museum's own website or on line database) have been appropriated for use on line without permission or proper attribution. There are also frequent concerns voiced that such sites trivialize the Holocaust, disrespect those whose lives were taken from them, or, because they blur the conventional lines between historical fact and creative fiction, unintentionally undercut the larger project of Holocaust historical documentation.

The postings on the Wall of the "Henio" site engage in some striking shifts in voice, as in this simultaneous implication of first person plural and first person singular positioning in a January 10, 2010 posting:

Henio was an eyewitness and a victim to the Nazis' actions. Because he was murdered, he could never provide his testimony. We try to reconstruct his life in the ghetto from survivors' testimonies, from documents, from knowing the history of Lublin during the Nazi occupation...

(The longer version of this posting, in English and Hebrew, is signed by "Neta Zytomirski Avidar," thus adding another authorial voice into the mix.)

In other cases, purported quotes by Henio are presented, describing events he would have witnesssed.

As of today (January 23, 2010, "Henio" has 2,888 Facebook friends. Some of the postings on the wall are the kind of saccharine kitsch generally facilitated by Facebook ("I just sent you a smile...send me one back," accompanied by a photo of a puppy), some flagrantly commerical ("Free Neiman Marcus cookie recipe"), some are oddly disturbing (a photograph of a child with arms outstretched on a cliff edge with the caption, "no other way now-Just Fly"). So far as I can tell no postings have been made by Holocaust deniers (or at least none of currently evident on the Wall.) A visitor submitting a request to become Henio's Facebook "friend" views the somewhat odd statement on his or her Facebook interface (seen in the screen shot above): "Henio Zytomirski. Awaiting Friend Confirmation."

The ethics and implications of this kind of site are complex, and well worth contemplating. For the moment, though, I'd like to note that many of the debated features of the site are not especially novel in memorialization. Indeed, for countless generations, human memorial practices have engaged in constant shifting between multiple discursive frames and points of view, speaking simultaneously for the living and for the dead, and oscilalating among multiple temporal positions. Consider the Massachusetts headstone pictured at,
which bears the inscription:

Rachel Cotton
d. 1808
Plymouth, MA

am erected
Josiah Cotton Esqr
in remembrance
of Rachel
his pious and Virtuous
who died Januy 17th 1808
aged 50 years.

In belief of Christianity I lived,
In hope of a glorious Resurrection I died.

Note that the stone first itself takes on the first person position, then the principal referent, in third person, is that of the bereaved husband (whose authorship of the entire text is thus inferred), and then in the final couplet the primary first person voice is attributed to the deceased. As Roland Barthes notes in Camera Lucida, such paradoxical forays into time-bending are especially associated with photography of the dead. Barthes presents a photograph of a condemned criminal on the eve of his execution with the caption, "He is dead and he is going to die." (Many of the postings on Henio's Wall specifically comment on his face in a photograph: that he looks like the writer's son, or seems beautiful, or sad; as in Barthes' example, the tense of these postings moves between past, present and future, anticipating his approaching demise.)

The labor of memorializing the dead, paradoxically, often requires that the bereaved ventriloquizes them or embody them, while also, subtly, gradually distancing oneself from them. In many African socities, the honored ancestral dead are held to be immanent in carved wooden masks which most be worn by living dancers--who during the performance embody the dead in the most intimate way possible yet who must come of this state if normal life is to continue. In a famous ethnographic example, analyzed by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, during Fox Indian funeral games, the dead were embodied by a "team" played by living persons, who were allowed to triumph over the team played by the living-- precisely in order to convince or trick the dead of the manifest fiction that it is better to be dead than alive. In some diverse instances, human mourners struggle to create ritual spaces and times in which the frontiers between the domains of the living and the dead are porous, precisely so that equilibrium between these states may be restored, in the interest of the ultimate regeneration of life. In his magesterial study, "Writing the Dead: Death and Writing Strategies in the Western Tradition" (Stanford University Press, 1998): Armando Petrucci documents how classical inscriptions on monuments and tombs were widely understood as messages conveyed to the gods or the Divine, across the fragile borderlands of life and death.

It would seem that something comparable is going on in the case of Henio's Facebook Wall. Thousands of people log on in order to enter in to some sort of symbolic exchange with the Dead, to engage in an act of nurturing directed towards the other world. In Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Jean Baudrillard famously argues that modernity is characterized by a progressive loss of capcity to engage in symbolic exchange with the dead, that conventional death has been gradually disenchanted and neutralized in sterile and secular biomedical settins. Only in the case of horrific mass violence, Baudrillard maintains, do modern persons as it were recover a sense of the energies once believed to circulate between the living and the no-longer-alive. The Henio Facebook site would seem to be consistent with Baudrillard's characterization: a victim of unspeakable mass, systematic violence Henio invites complex acts of symbolic reciprocity and voicing, as the ethereal medium of cyberspace is popularly appropriated to serve as a tangible arena for the intangible frontier between the worlds of Life and Death.


Totoroomq said...

The porous relationship between the living and the dead described in Levi-Strauss' book was constituted essentially by ritual. That is, through a "performative game" a delicately balanced relationship between the two worlds has been maintained. Meanwhile, Henio's facebook site presents a very interesting case. It makes me wonder that if we could consider the act of writing letters to a deceased boy as performative, or is it an act of sincerity? And after pondering on it for a while, I think those are performative actions with a sincere purpose.


JoySW said...

These performative acts are also purgative, cathartic and very public, forming communities of memorialization (and memory) that go beyond individual acts. Of interest is how on Facebook, the act of sending a virtual kitten, teddy bear, or message is not wholly unlike leaving the same physical material culture at a child's grave or in another commemorative landscape.