Facebook Memorial Sites Taking Hold

People in front of the gate at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, in the city of Oswiecim, Poland, on Thursday, May 5, 2005, just before the 18th annual March of the Living that honors some 1 million of the camp's Jewish victims who died in the Holocaust. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Henio Zytomirski's Facebook profile picture stands out from most. The grinning 6-year-old is captured in black and white and poses in an old-fashioned buttoned-up shirt and shorts.

The photograph, shot in 1939, is probably the last taken of him before he was murdered in the Holocaust. A group in the boy's hometown of Lublin is using the social networking site to breathe virtual life into Henio's stolen childhood and give people around the world the chance to get to know him - as well as mourn the millions of others killed by Nazi Germany.

With nearly 3,000 friends, Henio's page is one of the most striking examples of a new phenomenon in which people are setting up Facebook memorials for the victims of the past century's greatest tragedies. Another project in Belgium attempts to create Facebook pages for each of the 27,594 Allied soldiers who were killed in Belgium during WWII, and Anne Frank and the Auschwitz memorial site are also on Facebook.

Facebook and MySpace users have long been creating memorial pages for friends and family, but these new projects aim to rekindle lives of the more distant dead who might otherwise be forgotten.

"Henio was an eyewitness and a victim to the Nazis' actions. Because he was murdered, he could never provide his testimony," his page says in a post written by Neta Zytomirski Avidar, a cousin of Henio's who lives in Israel and has helped build the site. "We try to guess what might have been his testimony."

On Henio's page, postings made by Henio's cousin and other administrators shift between third-person descriptions of his life and posts in the voice of dead boy.

One of Henio's pictures shows a Hebrew-language book - the kind Henio would have studied from if the war hadn't broken out on what was to have been his first day of school, preventing him from ever attending.

The caption in Polish reads: "It will be September soon. I will go to school. I wonder what's it like at school. I'm a bit afraid. Daddy says there is no need to be afraid. After all - he is a teacher. Today I saw my textbook."

Some historians and educators fear the use of the social media in war remembrance could trivialize tragedies like the Holocaust, or that postings like those in Henio's name could blur the boundaries between fact and fiction.

Adam Kopciowski, a historian at Lublin's Marie Curie-Sklodowska University who specializes in Jewish studies, believes posts written in the dead boy's voice raise ethical questions and amount to "abuse toward a child that has been dead for the past 70 years."

"This is an act of pretending to be a person that has died, but we cannot be sure whether he spoke that way, whether he thought that way, whether he acted that way," Kopciowski said.

Certainly amid the postings for Henio, some mundane, even silly, messages can be found on his Wall, such as invitations to play the popular Facebook game Mafia Wars. Some send him little virtual gifts: a bouquet of flowers, honey from Israel, dreidels at Hanukkah.

Joy Sather-Wagstaff, a cultural anthropologist at North Dakota State University, said the virtual gifts should not necessarily be seen as frivolous.

"I look at this as a virtual version of what they would leave if they actually went to a place where there was a monument to him. I bet they would leave little notes and toys - the physical material version of what you see them leaving on Facebook."

Sather-Wagstaff co-facilitated an informal December conference in Washington, D.C., co-hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum entitled "Conscience Un-conference: Using Social Media for Good" - in which Henio's page was a focus of discussion.
She said she sees the Henio phenomenon as one way people today grapple with what death means in an era of great tragedies of scale, from the Sept. 11 attacks to the recent earthquake in Haiti.

Pawel Brozek, a history student who helps administer the site, said that when the project was launched last summer, it initially drew criticism from several Poles who said it insulted Henio's dignity. But those voices were quickly hushed by an outpouring of positive reaction from around the world.

Anthropologist Mark Auslander, a Brandeis University professor who specializes in the use of ritual and art in commemorating the dead, said he believes social media like Facebook are "vital new technologies" that hold great promise in education, and that Henio's site is one of the most captivating he has seen.

He discussed Henio in a recent blog, writing that "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."

"The phenomenon is very fascinating," Auslander told The Associated Press. "It tells us something profound about our deep desire around the world to be linked to one another through these fragile traces of memory. And this is potentially a very wonderful and beautiful thing."