Holocaust Victim’s Heartbreaking Life Recreated On Instagram Stories
Éva Heyman was a bright, ambitious girl whose warm smile still shines from black and white photographs.
Born in Nagyvarad, Hungary – now a part of Romania – the schoolgirl was just 13 years old when she was murdered in the Nazi gas chambers of Auschwitz. Her mother later said she was pushed onto the truck by the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, himself.
Éva’s curious, perceptive personality was captured within her diary, which was published posthumously with the title The Diary of Éva Heyman.
Sometimes referred to as ‘The Hungarian Anne Frank’, Éva shared many of the special attributes which have endeared generations of readers to Anne.
Éva was eloquent, observant and had a deeply considered way of reporting on current affairs. She was also full of life, fun and potential. Devoted to her friends and family, Éva had a range of talents aside from writing, including ‘athletics, swimming, skating, bicycle riding, and exercise’.
Mirroring Anne’s hopes of pursuing a career in journalism, Éva longed to become a newspaper photographer. Had she been allowed to live, there is no doubt she would have grown up to become a highly accomplished woman
While Anne’s diary spans the course of a few years, Éva’s diary is strikingly short, covering a period of just a few brief months during which her world fell apart at a terrifying speed.
The diary of a Jewish teenager has been reborn as an Instagram story…
Posted by UNILAD on Tuesday, 4 June 2019
One moment Éva is playing around and giggling at her grandfather’s pharmacy, and the next the business is being stripped from the family under new laws.
The Nazis, once just a frightening army she had seen at cinema screenings, were suddenly marching through her city, with Éva and her family forced from their beautiful, middle class home and into the ghetto.
The worried, overheard conversations of adults quickly escalate to full-blown panic and weeping. Hope that the Russian army will get to them first replaced with a second-by-second fight for survival.
There are perhaps very few texts on earth which can better convey how breathtakingly quickly fascist forces can obliterate a person’s life and future.
The year of Éva’s death was 1944, and – with so many years having passed – it’s hard for many to reconcile this tragic victim’s inhuman end at Auschwitz with a sweet teenager who grew up within a loving home.
And yet, despite her devastating fate the gifted diarist was not unlike any teenager you might come across today. Fond of dancing and prone to crushes, Éva longed for adult life in the big city and had been delighted by the high heels she received as a birthday present.
This normality turned nightmare has been horrifyingly conveyed through Eva.Stories, a project which tells Éva’s story as if she had used Instagram, with the 1940s setting meshed with silly filters, heart eye emojis and mentions of #BFFs.
There are a number of stories on Eva.Stories, taking us from February to June 1944. In this time we see touching snippets of Éva’s life and inner turmoil, pulled from her diary entries.
We see Éva’s admiration for her glamorous mother, Ági, and her humiliation at being forced to wear the Star of David on her coat. We see her penchant for ice cream and her determination to survive the war, even if it meant waiting it out in ‘a small cellar, a roof or some secret cranny’.
This highly modern, personal take begins with Éva celebrating her 13th birthday and ends with her crushed into a darkened train carriage bound for Auschwitz, and is hard hitting to say the least.
This project makes Éva feel more present – more immediate – almost as if you could reach out and speak to her, offering words of comfort or encouragement in the comments section.
Comments left by followers reflect the profound emotional impact this project has had on them. One person said, ‘It made me cry like I’ve lost a sister’, while others praised the production team for bringing Éva’s diary to life so vividly.
When Éva looks to the shaky camera and confides in you – with whispers, with frightened tears – you forget for a second how it is decades too late to save her. You cannot petition or campaign to have her brought to safety.
This is, of course, exactly the intention behind this project. Although Éva’s life was cut brutally short, there are many others across the world today being affected by the evils of antisemitism.
Antisemitism is on the rise both in the UK and worldwide, with antisemitic incidents in Britain having reached a record high for the third year in a row.
In May 2019, Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry published worrying findings which suggest antisemitism has become more ‘mainstream’, reporting 387 antisemitic attacks worldwide in the past year alone.
A 13 per cent rise in the number of major violent antisemitic incidents has been recorded, with 13 Jewish people having been murdered due to antisemitic attacks.
According to this report:
The most disturbing finding identified in 2018, is the sense of insecurity prevalent among Jews and confirmed by surveys. They do not feel an integral part of society anymore and sometimes they even sense a state of emergency.
Antisemitism is mainstreaming, even normalised as a constant presence, in the public as well as in the private sphere.
A reported 68 antisemitic attacks took place in Britain alone in the past year, with a rise in what the report has described as ‘virulent antisemitic opinions, disguised as anti-Zionism’.
According to the Campaign Against Antisemitism, Britain is currently at a ‘tipping point’:
Comparatively, Britain is one of the best countries in the world in which to be Jewish, but we must fight to keep it that way.
Britain is at a tipping point: unless antisemitism is met with zero tolerance, it will continue to grow and British Jews will increasingly question their place in their own country.
A concerning 39 per cent of Jewish people living in Britain feel the need to conceal their Judaism when out in public, while one out of three Jewish Brits have considered leaving the UK in the last two years because of antisemitism.
Making sure Éva’s story doesn’t just feel like a history lesson is a matter of urgency. With the widespread rise of Holocaust denial and Nazi rhetoric, Éva’s story needs to be heard by a new generation.
Despite the deceptively simple format of Instagram, the painstaking work which went into this project has been akin to making a feature film, with 400 staff and actors working on extraordinarily detailed sets.
The project was created by father and daughter team Mati and Maya Kochavi, using a multi-million dollar budget and a combined inter-generational expertise to recreate Éva’s increasingly harrowing surroundings.
Éva’s story is one which resonates with Maya, 27, whose dedication to doing justice to Éva’s thoughts and words is evident.
Maya told UNILAD:
The reason why we started this process is because of the rise in antisemitism around the world, which is cited in a lot of studies.
We realised there was two challenges. For the more Israeli audience, the best way to understand the horrors of what happened in the Holocaust is to speak to survivors. So it makes it the most real, and the most tangible for you.
The issue is that the survivor numbers are dwindling. So we know that that’s a problem, and we know that we have to find new ways to connect the Holocaust to the younger generation.
And then on a more international level, there’s a crazy number – I think it’s like a third? – of the population doesn’t believe that the Holocaust actually happened. So it’s frightening to realise that.
The number of holocaust survivors is dwindling with every passing year, with the human connection to this unthinkable tragedy becoming ever more fragile.
For example, in January 2019, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany reported concerning gaps in Holocaust knowledge among young people in Canada, similar to comparable studies of young people in the US and Austria.
62 per cent of Canadian people between the ages of 18 and 34 believed substantially less than six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, while a shocking 22 per cent either hadn’t heard of – or weren’t sure if they’d heard of – the Holocaust.
I grew up in America and I lived most of my life in America, and a lot of my American friends don’t really understand what happened in the Holocaust.
And as a Jewish woman, and as an Israeli, I never truly realised that. And so I started having some of these conversations with my friends and I realised that they’re not actually that educated on the topic.
So we realised that there was a couple of challenges, and then we came together and thought to ourselves, ‘Okay, how can we tackle this? How can we make it relevant? It’s 2019, it’s a new generation, and how can we make it feel like it’s happening to them, or to their friends?’ And that’s how the idea came about.
From Schindler’s List to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, there have been numerous films and books which explore the horrors of the Holocaust while drawing from the eye witness accounts of real people.
However, using Instagram – typically regarded as a ‘shallow’ platform – to tell stories from this dark period in human history is something completely new entirely, and Maya feels they have ‘broke the code’.
The surprising format sparked a bit of backlash, with critics concerned Instagram stories would be an inappropriate means of commemorating a victim of the Holocaust. As Maya put it, this is a ‘sacred topic’.
Maya told UNILAD how there was initially a bit of a ‘backlash’ to this project due to widely held assumptions :
There is a belief that Instagram is quite shallow. A lot of people believe that in Israel.
I think that a lot of Americans I guess also believe that. And the Holocaust is such a sacred topic that a lot of people were offended in the beginning.
However, once the trailer had been been released, people began to understand the nature of the project, and saw how sensitively Éva’s story had been handled. So began an ‘outpouring of love and acceptance for the project’.
Maya was touched by the ‘hundreds of thousands of messages’ followers sent to Éva, adding:
I feel very connected to her, and so it’s just amazing to see these messages that people send to her. They’re really personal, they’re really speaking to her like she’s their friend, like they know her.
And it’s been really brilliant in that sense. So the messages have been very, very inspiring and very rewarding for me.
Maya spoke of the potential for Instagram to tell other important stories in a personal and creative way:
It kind of opens up so many different channels for so many different things that can be told in this way.
So I’m getting so many messages and ideas from people and journeys that they’ve gone through. From mental health, to political problems that are happening today.
So there’s just so many avenues, so many things that you could really make personal for people through this channel.
At the same time, I think the old school methods are really important also. I think we kind of need a combination of old school and modern methods.
The last story on Eva.Stories leaves followers with a poignant shred of hope that Éva’s hopes of becoming a newspaper photographer have in some meaningful way been realised posthumously.
Followers are spared what comes next. The four months spent in Auschwitz where eyewitnesses recall she never lost the will to live. The sores on her feet which led to her being picked out by Mengele and sent to the gas chambers.
Maya told UNILAD how she thinks a lot about what Éva would have thought about the project, and spoke about the difficulties involved when telling another person’s story.
It’s really hard when you’re telling someone’s story because you’re always worried, you know, ‘Is this what she would have wanted? Is this told in the right way? This relationship to her mother, is that presented the right way or is she having a bad day when she wrote that in her diary? Does she want us to reveal this part?’
It’s a very strange process, and you know it’s a sad process, connecting to this person who was actually real. But at the end of the day, Éva really did have plans to become a famous news reporter, and she did mention that time and again in her diary.
A vivacious, opinionated teenager with a reporter’s eye for detail, it is likely Éva would have made use of Instagram had it been around during her lifetime, sharing what she was seeing with the world for as long as possible.
Maya likes to think telling Éva’s story through this reporting focused method means ‘she won in her own way’, expressing her hopes that Éva would be ‘pleased and happy’ with the result.
In just a few short years, all those who survived the Holocaust will have passed away, with only their stories remaining as a warning to future generations.
It will be up to those who rail against fascism to keep telling this stories faithfully, making sure they strike a painful chord with each retelling. We need to remember – again and again – just how quickly safe, ordinary life can descend into hell.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
CreditsKantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and 3 others
Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry
Campaign Against Antisemitism
Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany