BERLIN — 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 honoring 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 published images of some of the worst offenders and then blended them into horrific backdrops of the Holocaust.
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 ‘okay.’ ”
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 satirized 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.
His work shaming the memorial’s selfie-takers 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,” author Mirna Funk wrote in Zeit Online. “For using concentration camp inmates and murdered Jews — people, who might not want to be part of this campaign, because they don’t want to be turned into victims of the Germans for forever and all times.”
But like his work or not, Shapira’s project has touched a nerve in a country where controversy, discomfort and the memory of the Holocaust often go together. The memorial has thundered back into the news here after Björn Höcke — a politician for the nationalist Alternative for Germany party — delivered a controversial speech this month describing it as “a monument of shame.” He topped that off by calling Germany’s commemoration culture of World War II-era crimes “stupid.”
The comments sparked outrage, but Höcke’s superiors stopped short of ejecting him from the party, suggesting a level of tolerance with such notions that have begun to worry some in the rebuilt Jewish community here.
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, criticized 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 last 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 apologize,” before running off to his tour group.
Yet it is perhaps the abstract nature of the memorial that has led so many visitors to treat it as just another art space. The memorial itself has set no guidelines on selfies — although its security staff is supposed to ask visitors to refrain from climbing atop the slabs.
Jewish leaders say they are not certain that a selfie ban would be helpful and that it may rob the memorial of sense of openness.
“It would be impossible to create rules and to enforce them,” said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office. “Not everyone’s behavior is what some may wish, but this memorial truly helped to anchor Holocaust memory.”
Shapira titled his Internet project Yolocaust — a play on the “you only live once” mentality of selfie-takers.
The project went viral, and the 12 photos he posted have since been taken down. Most of the subjects, he said, have also offered apologies.
“Sometimes you just need to give people a little push, and they get it,” he said.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.