Bringing Holocaust Education to TikTok
It’s not every day that a Holocaust survivor makes a splash on TikTok. But Israeli Gidon Lev, who just turned 87, is a fast rising star of the video-focused social networking service, with nearly 400,000 subscribers and 5.7 million likes. That’s a lot of people, especially Young people, whose lack of knowledge about the Holocaust has been in the news lately – watching and liking his sometimes playful and sometimes serious and educational 30-second videos.
Lev, born in 1935 in the former Czechoslovakia, was imprisoned at the age of 6 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he remained until the age of 10. Almost all of the 150,000 children who were sent there were murdered in Auschwitz, Treblinka and elsewhere; only 92, including Lev, survived. After losing 26 members of his family in the Holocaust, he came to Israel in 1959, fought in the Six Day War and married twice. He has six children and 14 grandchildren. In addition to the hardships imposed on him by the Nazis as a child – hunger, cold, insecurity, fear, unimaginable pain and loss – Lev is also a two-time cancer survivor. But none of his life’s adversities made him less fiery or optimistic. On the contrary: he likes to dance, is curious and fiery, and his resilient attitude is contagious, as evidenced by the way his huge TikTok following reacts to his positivity, giving him the online nickname #tiktokgrandpa. “I’ve always clung to life,” he said. “The thirst to hold on and to survive is part of my character.”
His rise to TikTok fame started with a different project. Julie Gray, a journalist, editor and film industry veteran from Los Angeles who made aliyah in 2012, was initially approached by widowed Lev to edit her memoir. During their collaboration, a romantic relationship developed and they now call each other “life-loving buddies”. In 2020, they released a co-authored book titled The real adventures of Gidon Lev: Naughty. Holocaust survivor. Optimistic. When they launched their TikTok account, called @thetrueadventures, it was meant to promote the book. “What if I could totally subvert expectations – put an old man on a new platform?” Gray said in an interview with Ha’aretz.
Although the content created by Lev and Gray was initially limited to snippets of information about Lev’s story, as evidenced in the biography, it soon became clear to them that they had a unique opportunity to educate. “Selling the book became secondary to us,” Lev said, because as their audience grew and they learned about how misinformation, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and hate filled the TikTok universe, they felt the need to engage. “What jumped out at us were the comparisons between the Holocaust and [COVID] vaccines,” Gray said. “We got tagged by a few great designers, and overnight it became our raison d’être.”
The TikTok account has seen steady growth, but there have been some big jumps related to an iconic phenomenon of how TikTok works. One came when two of their TikToks challenged infamous podcaster Joe Rogan for his racist comments, and it caught the attention of outlets such as The Daily Dot, Newsweekand the British daily sun, all of which recounted how a Holocaust survivor confronted the influential cultural commentator. As a result, people streamed to their TikTok account. “We fight against hate against everything and everyone,” Lev noted. They actively seek to combat misinformation, prejudice, racism, hatred, homophobia, ignorance and Holocaust denial, as well as anti-vaccines, but also to promote tolerance, love, hope and kindness with Lev’s unbeatable optimism.
In a recent video in response to the war in Ukraine, Lev performs a little tap dance as text appears onscreen in short snippets: “So much pain and war/and pain and fear/not to mention the tiktok feuds/it’s overwhelming/remember do what you love/let me dance for you/things will get better/eventually/I promise.If anyone can promise life will get better thanks by experience, it’s Lev. Since the Russian invasion, he’s acted as someone who puts things into perspective for worried supporters. Comments such as “You made my day, I needed it ” usually appear on his videos.
Sometimes the pair hold live sessions with an open forum for TikTokers to ask Lev questions directly. Gray says people are blown away when they meet a Holocaust survivor. But, due to the nature of the platform allowing anyone on TikTok to “enter” these sessions, they must arrange to have five or six moderators on hand to block trolls who have l intent to sabotage sessions or divert attention to their own accounts, or to quickly remove anti-Semitic comments as they arise. Despite the sometimes demoralizing amount of negativity they see, Lev and Gray choose to focus on the positive. They welcome and respond with pleasure to questions that may seem naive to some: “Have you met Anne Frank? “Have you seen Hitler? “Did you go to a gas chamber?” “Where’s your number tattoo?” They hold to the mantra that if their response can help spread information about the Holocaust, that’s a good thing. “One of our best moments,” Gray said, “is when a young TikToker says to Lev, who uses his first name Gidon for his TikTok persona, ‘Thank you for making me not feel stupid.'”
“I want to tell young people how it was in the daily struggles” during the war, Lev said, adding that his personal story is much more relevant for young people than history lessons, and can give them hope for the future.
Gray notes that many of their younger followers have developed what she calls a parasocial relationship with #tiktokgrandpa. They spend hours a day answering questions and comments on their videos. It’s impossible to recognize them all, as they often appear in the thousands, but organizing the conversations is now part of the job. Lev and Gray’s engagement makes subscribers feel heard and seen, which only adds to the experience of connectedness and community.
Some educators are turning to TikTok to find ways to engage their students, and Lev and Gray say one of their most meaningful educational opportunities was a recent Zoom visit with a group of fourth graders from Rhode Island. , most of whom were not Jewish. After the virtual classroom experience, Lev received personal video greetings from all 24 students, thanking him. “What we see clearly through our impact on our young audiences is that Holocaust education needs to evolve,” Gray said. Museums can be numbing and seeing a pile of dusty shoes can provide visual impact, but talking directly to a survivor is a much more effective way to create a memorable experience of connecting to history. Gray says the content they create on TikTok can be considered a new wing of the history museum, except it’s not in the museum, but on your device.
Lev isn’t the only Holocaust survivor on TikTok. First to hit the platform was Lily Ebert, whose 19-year-old grandson creates the content that typically shows the 98-year-old Ebert, immaculately dressed, sitting and talking to the camera. She’s amassed a huge following, but her content, like that of fellow TikTok survivors Tova Friedman and Rosie Greenstein (aka The Readahead of Auschwitz) lacks the variety and colorful playfulness of Lev’s videos, which may be one of the reasons why he had such an experience. success in building an engaged audience. Sometimes @thetrueadventures runs what’s called “duets” with other content creators, such as @tovafriedman, which can help garner attention and attract subscribers for both parties.
In January 2022, Lev and Gray launched a podcast which they originally planned to be a fairly straightforward read from their book. “We originally recorded it as an audiobook, with just the text playing, but then we decided to take a chance and add music and special effects. [sound effects] so it was more immersive,” Gray told me. The result is a hybrid audiobook/podcast/series that includes bonus material, real-time interjections and commentary from Lev and Gray’s conversations, and mixed sound effects, like a sizzling skillet or footsteps on gravel or rock. traffic in the background. Gray narrates, Lev reads some parts and an Israeli actor reads the passages spoken by the young Gidon. The result is a lively and varied way of telling the story in the book, as well as the story behind it.
Lev and Gray’s book, podcast, and TikTok have the same goal: to share Lev’s personal story with as many people as possible to educate and prevent misinformation about the Holocaust, while telling a story about resilience and value of persistent belief. in the possibility of a better future. In one of their TokToks that went viral, a shirtless Lev smiles at the camera, Nico’s “These Days” plays in the background, and his hopeful words flash across the screen: “I Survived: A Camp Nazi concentration, cancer, grief, failure of loss. You got this. I believe in you. Never give up hope.”