Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier. Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust. Volume 32, Issue 2. 2018.
A soldier came up to everyone and asked how old they were. When it was my turn, a mean looking soldier with piercing eyes looked at me right in my face. ‘How old are you?’ he asked. I gulped. ‘Seventeen.’ He pointed to the left, obviously telling me to go with the women on the left. I watched my mother being asked the same question by the soldier. She was told to go to the right … My group was sent towards what looked like bunkers. Mother’s group was sent towards a building, but I’m not sure what kind of building. Tom and father were sent towards the same building as my mother. I later found out that they were sent to the Crematorium.
This excerpt does not come from a survivor testimony, but from the story ‘Forbidden Love (Jewish & Nazi Love Story)’ published on Wattpad, a story-sharing website for amateur and professional writers. Wattpad offers over a thousand stories about the Holocaust, including ‘historical fiction,’ essays, poems, fantasy stories, fake diaries, and fan fiction (fanfic). Credited with 183,829 reads (as of this writing), ‘Forbidden Love’ is the most popular ‘Holocaust story’ on Wattpad. Set in Auschwitz, it tells the ordeal of Jewish prisoner Lizzie Alferov, who is in love with Nazi Adam Ansel. While romance is generally ruled out when it comes to Nazi atrocities, it is a prevalent genre on Wattpad. In that respect, most of the Holocaust stories posted on the website belong to what scholar Berel Lang calls ‘bad writing’ and defines as ‘sentimentality and cliché, exploitation and tendentiousness, in short, literary and moral dishonesty.’
The present article proposes to take a closer look at this ‘bad writing,’ as it raises many questions about the literary transmission of Holocaust memory in the post-survivor and digital age. To what extent do Holocaust stories published on Wattpad qualify as Holocaust writing? What role does the Holocaust as historical event play in these texts? Does it only add a dramatic backdrop, the upheavals of history a metaphor for the tumults of coming-of-age? Are camps and ghettos a mere obstacle on the heroine’s way to happiness? Is romance a means for adolescents and young adults to approach a past they might otherwise find difficult to grasp? What do these stories say about the popular representations through which Holocaust memory is passed down to younger generations? In recent years, e-readers such as Nook and Kindle, tablets, and iPads have created a new ‘ecosystem’ for the act of reading. What is the impact of digital media on literary forms of Holocaust memory? How do we make space for this new production in the highly codified environment of Holocaust literature?
To answer these questions, the article focuses on a set of 65 stories selected either for their size (over 50 parts), popularity (tens of thousands of reads), or the relative complexity and originality of the plot. Given that Wattpad is primarily an English-speaking platform, most of the stories analyzed in this article were written by North Americans. Consequently, the discussion about them relates to the much-debated ‘Americanization’ of the Holocaust. However, some parts of this study apply in other contexts as well, if one considers ‘Americanization’ in more general terms, as both mass cultural mediation of history and the process by which the Holocaust is turned into a global template for other stories of violence.
This article looks at textual and visual elements. Using Janice Radway’s analysis of romance in interaction with studies on Holocaust literature for children, the first section examines the plot of the stories and its potential effect on readers. The second section introduces the notion of ‘prosthetic memory’ to clarify the role and limits of popular culture in the representation of the central setting, the camp. Drawing on James Young’s study of Holocaust writing, the third section analyzes the specific relation of history, documentary, and fiction that materializes in the stories. The fourth section looks at the particular form of bonding provided by Wattpad and explores, through the notion of ‘fantasies of witnessing,’ the formation of communities around writing and emotions. Bad Holocaust literature should not be dismissed, Lang argues, ‘at least on the basis of the claim that much of this bad writing may nonetheless have good effects.’ Following this suggestion, the present article tries to assess the positive impact of the Holocaust texts that emerge from participatory culture in the digital realm.
Romeo and Juliet in the Third Reich
‘Is it going to have any romance in it?’
Like ‘Forbidden Love,’ a majority of Holocaust stories on Wattpad revolve around the same plot: the difficult love between a Jewish woman and a Nazi man (both in their late teens or early 20s, the age of the majority users). This storyline is typical of the romantic narrative structure analyzed by literary scholar Janice Radway in her seminal study about romance. The destruction of the heroine’s social identity places her and the hero in a conflict situation and leads to their physical and emotional separation, which is to be overcome during the course of the story. For example, ‘Confined’ follows violinist Hana Mahler from her pre-Anschluss happy life in Vienna to the Warsaw ghetto, then to the camps along with her tormented lover, Schutzstaffel (SS) commander Ludwig Eichmann.
The common point of all these stories, written mostly by young women, is the transformation of the ‘enemy’ into lover. For this to happen, authors must ‘de-Nazify’ the hero so he becomes a positive and protective figure. First, they make clear that he did not join Hitler’s ranks by choice, but was forced by circumstances, often related to his family. For instance, Adam (‘Forbidden Love’), Felix (‘Eliana’), and Prince Damon (‘Auschwitz Death Camp’) work in a camp commanded by their father. Cole Van-Houtem (‘Nanah’) is the nephew of Hitler’s girlfriend. The hero is also beset by conflict, which bespeaks the depth of his later metamorphosis. The moment at which he overcomes it for the sake of the heroine is the cathartic turning point of the story. ‘I blamed anyone I could. But in the end it was my fault,’ Nazi SS officer Klaus Austerlitz cries after the murder of a child (‘A Combination of Lives’). Readers cannot be left in doubt as to the hero’s intentions. The enthusiasm of SS officer Michael Armbrüster upon being told about his next mission of extermination comes as a shock (‘Red of Berlin’). But readers are soon reassured as Armbrüster continues:
I had to admit I was a good actor. I could act like a psychopath when I wanted to, and a lot of time I needed it. No good officer felt compassion the way I did, so I had to keep it under wraps when I was working.
Then, writers emphasize the particular status of the ‘romantic Nazi’ by contrasting him with the rest of the German perpetrators. The latter are usually depicted as an undifferentiated group of brutal and sadistic, military uniform-clad ‘bogeymen’ who are devoid of human emotions. Their identities, circumstances, or motivations are not discussed. According to literary scholar Hamida Bosmajian, this is often the case in Holocaust literature for children, since adult writers wish to spare young readers and downplay the attraction–repulsion Nazism might have held for Germans. Authors on Wattpad, at least the more mature ones, possibly have similar concerns. Mostly, though, they show little interest in understanding Nazism as political, social, and cultural phenomenon. Their knowledge of the history and structure of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei is limited at best. Nazi, Gestapo, SS, and Wehrmacht are interchangeable terms. Heroes unrealistically access top hierarchical positions in the party when they are not yet 18. With the exception of ‘Confined’ (which dedicates several chapters to the transformation of school curriculum after the Anschluss), stories barely touch upon the subject of Nazi racial politics. Even ‘Broken Wings,’ which questions notions of loyalty and obedience in Third Reich Germany, treats Nazi propaganda superficially. Author ellierose112 writes that Hitler changed people in an instant—a claim that makes a reader comment, ‘It was a long process of lies and brainwashing and it didn’t come just from Hitler, one man isn’t enough to cause that big of a change.’ The lack of information about perpetrators obscures the issue of antisemitism and the Final Solution. As a result, for the uninformed reader, the persecution of the Jews remains a mysterious situation, often blamed simply on the evil of Hitler.
The blanking out of Nazis takes on further meaning in the romantic context, and it may be interesting to relate the ‘a-historicality’ Bosmajian underlines in Holocaust literature for children to Radway’s understanding of romance as resembling myths of oral culture. Thanks to its repetitive structure, which provides the reader with a predictable and familiar narrative, romance acts as a ‘cultural release valve’ for emotions that could be troublesome in ordinary life. This quality makes it the ideal channel for conflicts over love and family relations and social constraints. Unlike adult romance, which often involves sexual/erotic content, stories on Wattpad usually focus on chaste love. Writers do not deal with transgression at any level, let alone the possible relation between Nazism’s emphasis of Kinder (children) and Küche (kitchen) on the one hand and the patriarchal institutions constitutive of romance on the other. Yet that they refrain from exploring the physical side of love more explicitly does not necessarily signal an absence of interest in the issue. In line with Radway, I would suggest that the anonymous mass of Nazi perpetrators symbolizes the frightening unfamiliar world of men, and the ‘taming’ of the hero through love and trust building offers writers and readers alike an ideal vision of the relation with the opposite sex. In that sense, in the romantic narrative structure, the Holocaust functions as a projection that helps adolescents reflect on questions of gender construction, the relationships between men and women, and adulthood. Conversely, the use of romance in the context of the Holocaust may be understood as a ‘safe display,’ allowing young people to address both this difficult past and broader questions of violence, as it manifests itself both on the global scale and in daily life. The hero’s ‘redemption’ through love shows that people can change and that even desperate situations are not completely devoid of hope. Furthermore, the heroine’s attitude charts a path of resistance and courage in the face of adversity that may be inspirational for the readers.
This points to the emancipatory dimension of Holocaust romance on Wattpad. Through such stories, young people are able to produce counter-representations and redefine for themselves the moralistic value of Holocaust storytelling in an increasingly threatening world. It is possible to see the connection between romance as a safe space for young women dealing with questions of intimacy, relations, and gender and the medium of Wattpad as a secure environment ‘for nascent women writers, in contrast to the male-dominated world of published writing.’ By providing authors, both as young women and as female amateur writers, with a supportive online readership, the application offers them a double form of apprenticeship and empowerment. Writers on Wattpad see the application as a training ground not only for adulthood, but also for becoming a ‘legitimate’ writer. Therefore, the fact that Wattpad may operate as a stepping stone to the traditional publishing world, even into cinema, should not be underestimated when analyzing the prevalence of romance in the application’s Holocaust stories.
Seen through this prism, the attraction of Wattpad writers to a genre that is not part of the Holocaust literary canon may also be explained by the impact of young adult sagas such as Twilight and The Hunger Games and the templates they supply in terms of role model (the modern-day heroine) and, importantly, cultural production (the successful author). Romantic Holocaust stories are best understood, then, within the realm of ‘convergence culture’ at the interplay of social networks, creativity, corporate/commercial interests, and long-established practices of literary appropriation. Furthermore, the model proposed by fanfic and fandom around romantic stories certainly informs what people do on Wattpad. In recent years, fan fiction, initially an activity that was not designed for profit (for many reasons, starting with issues of fair use and copyright infringement), has become more of a commercial activity. The metamorphosis of ‘Master of the Universe (MOTU),’ originally a fanfic version of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, into the bestselling book Fifty Shades of Grey played a critical role in the process. This development has contributed to reinforcing among amateur writers the ‘pull to publish,’ or the ‘hope of turning their fandom popularity into publishing deals.’ Wattpad itself offers its share of success stories, which any newcomer tries to emulate. Indeed, authors often stimulate their readers to vote for them so the story will appear on the website’s ‘What’s Hot List’ (the more traffic, the better, obviously). Therefore, one cannot exclude that some writers choose romance because it is a popular genre in their age group and thus ensures a modicum of attention from readers. It is this interaction of cultural frameworks of Holocaust memory, romantic commodity in twenty-first-century popular culture, and individual imagination that the next section will examine, with a focus on the setting of the stories, namely the camp.
Auschwitz as Fantasyland: The Limits of Imagination
‘We are in Auschwitz … and that smoke.’ She said pointing to the dark smoke rising. ‘That is the ashes of the dead.’
Some years ago, cultural theorist Alison Landsberg coined the concept ‘prosthetic memory’ to describe the impact of technologies of reproducibility and mass culture on people’s perception of the past. Prosthetic memories, she argued, are ‘neither purely individual nor entirely collective but emerge at the interface of individual and collective experience.’ Landsberg’s concept may help understand how writers on Wattpad conceive of the main setting of their love stories, the camp, through the remediation of images and ideas coming from popular culture.
Stories generally focus on Auschwitz, a place that, in the process, becomes a generic camp conflating different sites through their iconic features. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate features in numerous scenes describing the heroine’s discovery of the camp. This ‘potent and recognizable symbol of initiation into the Nazi death-world’ functions similarly for the story’s main character and the reader. As the threshold to be crossed, for both it marks the entry into a radically different world. ‘The entrance was traced with a fence of barbed wire and the sign at the top said “Work will set you free” in a language I vaguely understood’ (‘Making History’). There was ‘a large factory like place with a gate all around it. Nazis patrolled the whole area, inside and out’ (‘My Untold Story’).
The gas chamber/crematorium is another dominant image. ‘Flames licked at the sky giving the pitch black midnight a cold horror’ (‘Diary of Nameless Citizen Prisoner Number 8845-N’). In ‘Eliana,’ the just-arrived heroine notices black specks landing on the prisoners. These are ashes from the oven:
Part of me felt bad for wanting them to disappear because they were the remaining fragments of the dead. This was all was left of them. But I don’t want to remember the deceased as this. Piles and flakes of ash.
Next comes the selection, when the heroine experiences her first major loss, as she must part with her family. To emphasize this distressing situation, stories often contain a further emblematic scene in which a mother and her baby are separated, such as in ‘A Combination of Lives’:
‘No. Not my baby.’ The mother sobbed holding her child to her chest. The Nazi’s [sic] dragged her child away from her. ‘No!’ She shrieked. ‘Not my baby. Not my baby.’ She carried on repeating herself … Suddenly she jumped up and began running in the direction of the extermination chamber. She was running after her child.
Of course, the heroine is selected for work, and then her new life in the camp begins. The recurrence of this kind of scene in stories on Wattpad reflects the centrality of what Bosmajian calls the ‘trauma of arrival’ in accounts by Holocaust survivors. School education, museum exhibitions, movies, and social media have made young generations familiar with survivor testimonies. Therefore, it is not a surprise that such life stories strongly shape the writers’ representation of the Nazi concentrationary system. Moreover, the scene of the arrival/selection at the camp is the perfect narrative device. It finalizes, in the most dramatic fashion, the process of destruction of the heroine’s social identity. At the same time, it introduces a whole new level of ordeal. The suffering and hardship the heroine encounters afterwards in the camp underline the indestructible, albeit fragile, bond between her and the hero. For these reasons, the camp becomes, against all odds, the ideal setting for love stories. In his typology of Holocaust literature for children, author Eric Kimmel resorts to the image of the concentric circles of Dante’s Inferno, with stories of death camps at the center. This core holds a fascination for writers on Wattpad. In contrast to professional Holocaust literature for children, which usually tries to limit or conceal the atrocities of the Third Reich, Wattpad’s young authors do not shy away from violence. They do not hesitate to describe—sometimes at length—humiliation, beating, and killing. Popular culture undeniably informs the graphic aspect of some stories. Movies such as Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas are regularly mentioned as sources of information. ‘I write this according to a movie I saw, and in it it showed that the people who were not in the showers but doing other labor work was [sic] able to hear faint screams from the so-called showers’ (author of ‘Life in the Holocaust’). Popular culture, thus, provides visual frameworks for imagining extreme violence in Auschwitz, up to the gas chamber. However, it seems of little use for the credible rendering of daily life in the camp and what it may have felt like to be a prisoner.
Instead, it is the ‘question of the relation between the catastrophe and the everyday’ that structures to a great extent the image young writers have of the camp. Most authors de-familiarize their daily life to figure out the unknown. Their conception of ‘hell’ is based on their own situation, which they turn upside down by imagining the loss of family, friends, home, social status, and self-esteem. For scholar Eric L. Tribunella, it is rather the ‘predilection for using loss and identification as a technique for promoting the maturation of children in American culture that has enabled the Holocaust to be so easily and enthusiastically received by those involved with children and their education.’ This further points to the centrality of prosthetic memory. The appropriation of commodity memory by writers on Wattpad, using sacred artifacts and iconic images of the Holocaust as well as movie and testimony narratives in their stories, may be construed as the attempt to become part of a larger, traumatic history. Conversely, it is through the encounter with mass cultural memories of the past that the young authors find a way to reflect on their own personhood and subjectivity, and possibly to integrate the Holocaust into the context of the lived daily experience. Either way, the problem is that in the absence of elaborate literary expression, registers of writing (grotesque, allegory, magic realism), and historical knowledge, the descriptions combining homeliness and the uncanny easily end up in a new disturbing version of ‘kitsch and death’ (to draw on Saul Friedländer’s work): the ‘cozy Holocaust.’
Aspects of life in the camp are highly fantasized. Food, for example: prisoners receive bowls of chili served at the cafeteria (‘Nanah’), bread and cold tomato soup (‘Dieing Inside: The Truth of the Holocaust’), a piece of bread with a little bit of margarine and a small cup of black coffee for the breakfast (‘Forbidden Love’). On Sunday, they get only tasteless coffee and a small slice of salami (‘Prisoner B-1941’). Eating only light broth and rough bread with large whole grains, Eliana is famished. Worried about her health, Felix manages to give her chocolate chip cookies from the bakery. She forces herself to take only small bites. ‘This way I was able to savor the flavors and textures of the soft chewy cookie,’ she says (‘Eliana’). Prisoners live in relatively comfortable barracks, and hygiene is not too bad (although authors concur on the difficulty the heroine faces trying to wash up).
The physical aspect of the heroine is rather fanciful, too. Her body must reflect the ordeal she undergoes (she gets thinner), but at the same time, she has to remain attractive. In these conditions, shaven heads are out of the question. The heroine keeps her curls, which she hides underneath a cap or a bandana. Prisoners and their lovers also enjoy an unheard-of freedom of movement. ‘Disguised’ in a stripped uniform, Edmund visits Eva in the barrack (‘Prisoner B-1941’). Every night, Nazi guard Leopold Wolfe brings prisoner Zoë Keller to a secret spot outside the camp where they can look at the stars together (‘A German-Jew Holocaust’). The Wattpad version of Auschwitz operates more as a rhetorical figure than a topographical reality. Dominick LaCapra’s depiction of the camp in Roberto Begnini movie’s Life is Beautiful (1997) fits in this context: ‘The camp remains a rather “utopian” space of nowhere land, underspecified in terms of location, duration of stay and operation.’ Moreover, this is a nowhere land from which one can escape. The most fantastic evasion from Auschwitz is certainly the one recounted in ‘Forbidden Love’: Lizzie and Adam spend the night under a false name in a small hotel nearby that is crowded with Nazis; in the morning, they hop on a plane that flies them straight to London. While this ending sits well in a fairy tale (which may explain the story’s popularity), it proves far more problematic in the context of the Holocaust. The particular relation to history writing this implies will be discussed in the next section.
The Condition of History in Wattpad Stories
‘Based on true events during the holocaust, however all characters are fictional (events may be slightly inaccurate as I am not an historian, so sorry about that!).’
The condition of history, which is, according to Lang, the constant aspiration of Holocaust writing, is a serious challenge for writers on Wattpad. This is very apparent in the question of the ending. Kimmel pointed out that Holocaust literature for children is built on the tension between ‘craft’ and ‘subject,’ between the duty to provide an uplifting ending and the demands of history. Since then, this dilemma has been widely discussed. Authors on Wattpad must take into account the conventions of the romantic genre, too: a good romance is a romance that ends well. This, of course, is very unlikely in the context of the Holocaust. Faced with this double challenge, writers propose different solutions. For some, plausibility—even in the fairy tale they have created—overrides any other consideration. The heroes will die because it cannot be otherwise in a Nazi-dominated world. After escaping from Auschwitz, Eliana and Felix make it safely to the forest. One morning, they are sleeping when they hear a dog bark nearby. Felix goes to see what is happening and is shot by a group of guards who were looking for the fugitives. Eliana grabs his gun and, threatened by a soldier, kills herself (‘Eliana’). This was a shock for many readers: ‘This is sick. After everything they’ve been through you could’ve let the characters have a shot at their happy ending.’ However, others liked the ending, thinking it made the story more effective. The author articulated her position clearly:
When I first thought up this story, I knew I had to keep some reality to it. How likely was it for a Nazi officer to love a jewish [sic] prisoner? Not very. Also, how often did people successfully escape the camps, especially Birkenau? Rarely. So, taking both those things into account, I quickly decided that Eliana had to die, it just felt right to make Felix go with her.
Even for characters who survive the Nazi terror, it is not ‘all’s well that ends well.’ They are damaged and traumatized. Coming across her former lover, the Nazi Lukas (whom she had left for Jewish freedom fighter Zakai), in New York a few years after the war, Jada Scheffer finds herself in a deep emotional crisis (‘My Untold Story’). Some authors attempt a compromise. In ‘The Jewish Nazi (Rebooting Soon),’ Jewish prisoner Felicity and her lover, Henry, a Nazi guard, are caught while trying to kill Hitler and made to dig a hole. Felicity refuses to obey and is shot. In retaliation, Henry kills the guard, but is stabbed in turn: ‘I keep choking and choking on my own blood until I’m dead.’ But soon his eyes open to beautiful colors, and he sees Felicity and her family.
A man walks up behind her. ‘You were part of my plan, I made you help my child get here. You killed in my name so you are forgiven’ he says. This must be God. I must be in heaven. Felicity smiles. ‘You’re an angel.’
In this case, romance situates the happy ending in the afterlife. Theodicy is not a major concern for writers on Wattpad. Yet some stories raise the issue of the existence of God in the face of evil. This, however, is no longer about the condition of history, but rather about its meaning, as young people distressed by the events try to reach a satisfactory conclusion, perhaps more for themselves than for the millions dead from the Nazi regime.
The question of how to end a Holocaust story crystallizes the broader problem of dealing with historical events through the medium of fiction. Holocaust romances on Wattpad are mostly tagged ‘historical fiction.’ In the content guidelines, the website lists the category alongside action/adventure, classics, mystery/thriller, science fiction, poetry, paranormal, humor, and so on. It defines it as follows:
Historical Fiction recounts a famed event of the past or a memorable, recognizable time period as experienced by fictional characters but may also describe a historical figure (in their perceived likeness) that must deal with a variety of imagined situations.
The definition, obviously, does not provide any readymade answers to the challenge of writing about the Holocaust. Aware of the gravity of the subject, authors have to find their own way. Interestingly, they often insist on what Holocaust scholar James Young calls the ‘documentary link between the text and the events.’ They achieve historical authority vis-à-vis the readers by weaving elements of reality into the story. For that purpose, they use different methods. The integration of sacred artifacts of the Holocaust (to draw on Stier’s terminology) into the story as references to authenticity is one of them. Another common method is the mix of real and fictive characters. The hero of ‘Confined’ Ludwig, is the son of Adolf Eichmann. The heroine Hana meets pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman at the Polish Radio in September 1939. The narrator of ‘Diary of Nameless Citizen Prisoner Number 8845-N’ runs into Elie Wiesel during the evacuation of the camp.
Writers also insert references to actual organizations and events. Zakai, the Jewish hero of ‘My Untold Story,’ mentions Mordechai Anielewicz and the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB). He himself is a ZOB leader in the Łódź ghetto. In ‘Red of Berlin,’ Nazi officers discuss the massacre at Lidice and Heydrich’s role. Moreover, authors introduce actual records into the story. In ‘Confined,’ this is done through transcripts of radio broadcasts (Hitler’s speeches) and reading of newspapers (anti-Jewish legislation decrees). Some writers supply a historical background instead. Almost every chapter of ‘Chasing Colours,’ for example, opens with a paragraph that situates the events (e.g. the Weimar Republic, the Nuremberg Laws). Lastly, authors refer to eyewitnesses and firsthand experiences. In reply to a reader pointing out her mistakes, the author of ‘Eliana’ explains, ‘Most things you have been correcting are details that my great grandfather told me.’ He was in Auschwitz, and he and his sister were the sole survivors of the family.
The integration of real-life and documentary elements as a means of injecting historicity into the story is a major theme of discussion between writers and readers on Wattpad. Their exchanges shed light on how young people struggle to define what writing about the Holocaust is. According to Young, documentary fiction makes it difficult to delineate the border between fact and fiction and may lead the writer to relieve himself/herself ‘of an obligation to historical authority of real events (invoking poetic license).’ This can be observed on Wattpad as well. Although Veena25001 does not use this expression, poetic license is the gist of her argument in ‘Making History’:
A lot of my ideas are based on a book I read, including the way they got into the camp. I know a lot of the historical background such as shaving their heads I chose not to do in my story, although it contridicts [sic] what really happened. That’s just how I chose to make my historical fiction, key word there being fiction.
Readers do not all agree with such a position. While some do not seem to care (‘Literally, people need to get over the inaccuracy’), others consider the writing of historical fiction to require responsibility and work: ‘If you’re going to write an historical story, even a fictional one, you have to get your facts and dialect right.’ These readers often balk at the absurdity of some situations (even when they accept the idea of a love story in a camp), simplifications, and inaccuracies. The hair of female prisoners, for instance, becomes the subject of endless comments as people remind writers that inmates were shaved and deloused upon arrival. ‘I really don’t mean to nit-pick, but there are a few things you’ve missed out when it comes to Auschwitz,’ someone writes before listing what the author forgot or neglected to mention. It is not uncommon for readers to suggest that writers do more research:
You may want to visit Yad Vashem’s website of [sic] USHMM. They will give you a pretty good description of deportation and the deplorable conditions the prisoners had to face there … Please be sure and if you decide to write about the Holocaust that you do extensive research.
This instant feedback functions as a kind of safeguard for less-informed readers, who are thus made aware of the discrepancy between real and imagined situations. The ability of the audience to distinguish fact and fiction is an ongoing issue, something that is re-instilled each time a new popular representation of the Holocaust emerges in the public sphere. In the context of participatory culture, it finds a solution, even if the latter is not optimal. Most authors (unlike Veena25001) take criticism into account. This is important since stories on Wattpad can be edited long after being posted, which gives writers the opportunity to correct their mistakes and to gather more information. ‘I recently got a new library card. So I’m checking out tons of books on Aushwitz [sic]. It was such a tragic place. I didn’t realize that until I started the story,’ the author of ‘Auschwitz Death Camp’ announces proudly. In that respect, the ‘condition of history’ on Wattpad is the outcome of a collaborative process, in which the responsibility for historical authority is not left to the author alone, but involves the readers as well. Being a site of participatory pedagogy, the online platform facilitates the creation of new relations among the users. The next section will discuss how, in this context, the act of reading (and commenting) produces communities through which young people rethink their relation to the Holocaust.
Wattpad Communities and ‘Fantasies of Witnessing’
‘I SWEAR TO GOD! I SWEAR! I am never opening my laptop again! I AM GOING TO CRY NOW!!!!!!!’
Documentary fiction is a compelling ‘reading experience’ precisely because it claims to be so much more than a mere ‘reading experience,’ Young argues. This is a principal part of its phenomenology since ‘the emotional experience of such an illusion becomes the aim of the writer.’ The emotional dimension of the reading experience manifests itself at two levels on Wattpad: first, through the social/friendly ties that develop around the story and, second, as the proof of one’s relation to both the story and the Holocaust. In both cases, the reading experience generates communities, and this sheds a new light on the interplay of Holocaust writing, digital/social media, and forms of transmission. The interaction of writers and readers can be ongoing when an author posts updates of the story on a regular basis. As such, the author develops a privileged relation with some fans, which materializes through the practice of dedicating chapters to them. Writers also share moments of their daily life with readers through notes in which they apologize for being late posting a new part, complain about ‘blank page syndrome,’ or discuss school and leisure activities. Exchanging messages several times per week for a period of a few months, even up to a year, these users progressively form a tight-knit group united by a shared interest in Holocaust (and) writing. The members of this informal community often give their peers elaborate comments, discussing writing techniques and plot twists, and provide encouragement. As a result, Wattpad creates a highly supportive environment. After revealing that she has been working on her story since 27 December 2014 through 12 February 2015 (writing up to 1000 words per day), the author of ‘Broken Wings’ concludes, ‘I just want to start off by saying a huge thank to you all who have supported me in this book. Without you, I probably wouldn’t be writing this today.’ To this, a reader replies, ‘You’re one of so many young writers who have a lot of talent, pride and dignity in presenting their work … Your fans love you.’
The emotional dimension of the reading experience is also a means to bring readers closer to the events depicted. Gary Weissman discussed this issue in his 2004 book Fantasies of Witnessing. He argued then that our main fear regarding the Holocaust is not that we will get too close to it, but, on the contrary, that we will become more and more detached from it—hence our quest for affect as a way of getting closer again. In this context, one’s ability to ‘feel the horror’ of Nazi atrocities (sometimes to the point of confusing experience and representation) becomes the proof of one’s authentic relation to the Holocaust. Wanting her readers to ‘experience the terrors that millions of innocent people were forced to face and endure because of hatred,’ the author of ‘Confined’ tries to ‘add a sense of emotion to the reading experience’ through experiential means. Throughout the story, she uploads the songs Hana plays on her violin, and she suggests that readers listen to them while reading the chapters. She illustrates chapters with archival photos, such as of the Warsaw ghetto and of a teacher and student in front of a Nazi poster detailing racial features. Through multimedia, she produces an ‘augmented reality’ of the act of reading that addresses senses so her readers have the illusion of ‘being there.’ What we perceive as being the ‘truest portrayal’ (to draw on Weissman) of the Holocaust—that is, the least mediated and most affecting—is, in fact, the result of multiple mediations. ‘Confined’ demonstrates the connection between ‘fantasies of witnessing’ and processes of remediation. The ‘satiety of experience, which can be taken as reality’ (the result the author tries to achieve) is built through a complex dynamic of reappropriation of older media objects, made present and transparent at the same time. Some reactions to ‘Confined’ show that it succeeds at this:
Let me regain myself please. *inhales, exhales, then tosses phone across the room and screams*!! SO many things just happened and I’m still trying to wrap my head around them. I just can’t function with what just happened. I’m speechless. My fingers are trembling as I’m typing this so if I stumble on words, it’s because of that and it’s because it’s like 3 am or something right now. Okay. *breathes heavily*.
The emotion some readers feel during the act of reading sometimes stems from personal situations:
Oh so many feelings. So far I cried 4 times durning [sic] the whole thing, I love reading holocaust stories because it makes me feel like I’m there. My own grandparents, their [sic] very old won’t share what had happened in concentration camps only one of them is a survivor the other is a soldiers who helped her live.
‘Confined’ thus becomes a link between imagined history and family history, and virtual and real-life communities end up overlapping. People whose grandparents survived the Holocaust fulfill a duty of memory when reading/writing stories on Wattpad, the excess of imagination in the texts supplementing perhaps a silence about the subject in their own family circle.
I like to read about the holocaust as much as possible because I have a grandparent who was in Auschwitz 🙁 reading stories helps me feel like I’m educating myself so I can pass on the knowledge to my future children.
In this regard, Wattpad constitutes a new environment for Holocaust memory since at this point community merges into fandom. This development is not surprising, considering that fan fiction, romance literature, and children’s literature are ‘characterized by a similar degree of engagement with an imaginary world and the general intensity of affect.’ The phenomenon is still underdeveloped, yet one already finds two major Holocaust-related works reinterpreted through the prism of fanfic: the diary of Anne Frank and The Book Thief (both the 2005 novel by Markus Zusak and the 2013 film by Brian Percival).
That Anne Frank inspires young writers is no wonder given her paradigmatic importance in popular culture and Holocaust education. Fan fiction surrounding her comes mostly in the form of apocryphal diaries whose plots revolve around the relationship between Anne and Peter (‘Anne Frank’s Missing Diary,’ ‘Peter Van Pels and Anne Frank’s Life,’ ‘What if Anne Frank Survived?’). Alternate points of view (POV), such as those of Margot (‘Margot Frank: Anne Frank’s Margot older sister Secret Diary,’ ‘The Diary of Margot Frank’) and other residents in the Secret Annex (‘Diary of Anne Frank: Mr. Dussel’s POV’), are less common. Fan fiction based on The Book Thief mostly develops alternate endings in which Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s neighbor and friend, remains alive instead of dying in an Allied bombing of the city (‘The Book Thief—Alternate Ending,’ ‘The Book Thief—Don’t Leave Me,’ ‘A Book Thief Story: A Happy Ending for Rudy and Liesel,’ ‘Out of the Ashes: An Alternate Ending to the Book Thief’). Interestingly, the ‘One True Pairing,’ as this is called, favored by fans mostly excludes the hero of the original version, Max Vandenburg, the Jewish boy Liesel’s foster family hides in the basement.
The transposition of characters and historical figures into radically different universes does not happen a lot. When it does, though, it generates astonishing combinations, in which Anne and Peter become vampires (‘Anne and Peter: Undead’) and book-thief Liesel meets with detective Hercule Poirot and the Phantom of the Opera. Specialist Maria Lindgren Leavensworth defines fan fiction as ‘a mix between fidelity and resistance.’ This summarizes the position of younger generations vis-à-vis Nazi atrocities well: a frustration with the ‘bad ending’ of the Holocaust, the search for ‘structural closure,’ and the wish to become an active part in the transmission of history. Although less sophisticated than professional circles producing alternate histories of the Nazi regime, the young ‘Holocaust fandom’ on Wattpad is no less dedicated to the subject. The redemptive mode in which this emerging community expresses its commitment to recounting the past may well be clumsy, but it remains nevertheless the indication of a strong emotional engagement with Holocaust memory.
‘I’m a Jewish author/PhD student on the Holocaust and I LOVE that young people are writing and exploring the Holocaust. Not that I LOVE the Holocaust, but I think it is an important topic,’ someone writes in a comment (‘Eliana’). As Lang demonstrates, the argument that ‘everything goes’ as long as it helps people engage with the Holocaust is to be handled carefully. Should we be delighted that so many young people write/read about Nazi atrocities, no matter the quality of the texts in question? In that respect, stories on Wattpad are only the latest expression of an ongoing debate about Holocaust memory. Undeniably, the digital context makes the situation even more problematic since we talk about big numbers of users (although ‘reads’ and ‘hits’ should be differentiated). The mass consumption of the Holocaust on social networks, especially through literary genres barely used in other media, raises legitimate concerns. Of course one should be worried about stories on Wattpad replacing actual testimonies in the mind of young people or being compared favorably with Elie Wiesel’s book Night, yet, one would like to argue, following Lang’s example:
At least some of the writing that fully warrant such objections have arguably also been effective in calling public attention to the phenomenon of the Holocaust, in conveying information about it at least in a general form and perhaps also … in shaping moral responses and attitudes about the Holocaust and, arguably, about ethical issues generally.
Holocaust stories on Wattpad are more than just ‘chick lit’ on the Third Reich. Rather, it is important to keep in mind that raising awareness about the Holocaust is what motivates many of these young writers. Like ellierose112, they hope to make a difference:
Lastly, I want to end by saying this: never forget the Holocaust. A major study shows that out of 53,000 people, only 54% had ever even heart [sic] of it. That fact saddened me very much when I read that, and I hope that it changes someday.
On the receiving end, their peers also express a desire to know more about the subject, and become more proactive in their commitment to Holocaust memory:
Thank you so much for deciding to make this book, I’m doing a lot of studies on the holocaust and this is helping me learn so much more and I get to see it from an actual Jewish person’s point of view.
It is an invitation to consider the educational function of Holocaust writing on Wattpad (and similar websites) and to see the social network as a space of transition toward more sophisticated Holocaust literature, as a space of freedom of creation and the possibility for young people to define their own relation to the past, and finally as an ‘informal learning site’ that can coexist and interact with academic or institutional forms of transmission. Moreover, the critical role prosthetic memory plays in the writing of stories and the production of emancipatory narratives may transform the young authors’ vision of society. Without going as far as Landsberg’s claim that prosthetic memory may affect one’s politics and generate social change, I would nevertheless suggest that stories on Wattpad indicate new processes of subjectivization. Writing and sharing online helps the young writers and their readers become ‘a part of larger histories, of narratives that go beyond the confines of the nuclear family and that transcend the heretofore insurmountable barriers of race and ethnicity.’ As such, it may lead them to empathize with other—and more recent—stories of loss and disenfranchisement.
The introduction raised the question of whether these romantic stories qualify as Holocaust writing. With all their imperfections, yes, they do, I would argue. They also document a specific stage of Holocaust memory, the advent of the fourth generation. For these reasons, it is essential to think about ways to preserve them, as they are fragile texts unable to resist the corporate juggernaut and its continuous reorganizing of online materials. ‘Grab your popcorn, because it’ll be quite interesting!’ the author of ‘Confined’ teased her readers. One cannot but agree with her. The future of Holocaust writing in the post-survivor and digital age will certainly be challenging, but we may find good reasons to remain optimistic about it.