A Jewish social media influencer makes a Holocaust documentary for a new generation
November 18, 2022
(JNS) — At a moment of sharply rising antisemitism, a Jewish social media star known for her dance videos is getting deadly serious.
Montana Tucker’s 10-part docu-series, “How to: Never Forget,” has drawn millions of views on TikTok since launching at the end of last month. The series, edited into digestible two-and-a-half minute segments, is the result of an intense trip by Montana and a film crew to Poland, where they capture the story of Tucker’s grandparents during the Holocaust. The production included a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Tucker’s great-grandparents were gassed, and where her grandmother saw them for the final time.
Among Tucker’s nine million TikTok followers, she says her real fans know she’s Jewish and her grandparents survived the Holocaust, through occasional postings that include that subject matter. But, this project placed everything front and center.
“It’s not every day I post about being Jewish, or about my grandparents being Holocaust survivors,” Tucker, an acclaimed dancer, singer and actress known for her choreographed dance segments with global superstars, told JNS. “I have gotten hateful messages in the past, like the Holocaust never existed. And I’ve had people unfollow me when I’ve posted about my grandparents in the past. So posting a series like this, which is on a whole other level of just posting a happy picture with my grandparents, I wasn’t sure what the reaction was going to be.”
Tucker and her production crew said the timing of the docu-series, which concludes Wednesday, was done in conjunction with the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” in Nazi Germany and Austria when dozens of Jews were murdered in public and tens of thousands were sent to concentration camps. It wasn’t meant to coincide with the constant headlines regarding Jew-hatred that have dominated the news as of late. She said it’s made the reaction to the series all the more impactful.
“I am just overwhelmed with how incredible it has been. If you have a chance to go look through some of the comments on these videos, they are so powerful, from the Jewish people being so incredibly grateful that something like this is out there, but also from non-Jewish people being like, ‘I had no idea. Thank you so much for doing this. And thank you for opening my eyes.’ And that, to me, is what’s most powerful about changing people’s perspectives,” said Tucker.
The series is produced by Israel Schachter and Rachel Kastner with SoulShop Studios. SoulShop’s CEO, Dan Luxenberg, said Tucker is a “hero” for taking on the project.
“The fact that she’s taking over her channel and posting this to her millions and millions of followers is nothing short of heroic. She’s a role model in the Jewish community now. And non-Jewish kids around the country need a role model, and they’re seeing [Tucker’s work] and they’re grabbing on to it,” he said.
Tucker noted that she has friends in the industry who are openly Jewish behind the scenes and will post social media content about a wide range of social issues but hide their Jewish identity online.
“They’ve told me they feel like it’ll be a detriment to their business and people will unfollow them. That was interesting to me because that really never crossed my mind,” said Tucker. “I knew that people want to follow me, but I never said, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t post it because of that.’ If these people don’t want to follow me because I’m posting about my grandparents or posting about the Holocaust, then I don’t want them to follow me. Why would I want people to follow me that are like that?”
The series debut, which reached over a million people in under 24 hours, left Luxenberg “in a state of disbelief.” He said that while there are films, TV shows, documentaries and podcasts about the Holocaust, “the way this team got together and utilized and leveraged the ability to tell high-quality stories, through a short form medium, is literally disrupting and revolutionizing Holocaust education,” which surveys and studies show is drastically lacking among American youth.
Kastner, herself a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, told JNS that morning that she had a conversation with a Jew who went to school in New York before moving to Israel and said he never learned about the Holocaust in high school.
“There is a deep, deep lack of knowledge, lack of empathy, lack of perspective and scope on how recent this genocide was and how huge it was,” said Kastner.
There is a challenge in recounting the enormity of the Holocaust in around 1,500 seconds, as the “How to: Never Forget” series does. After all, the new Ken Burns documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” runs six hours. Tucker and her crew shot over 100 hours of footage in the span of a week.
“But you can’t just DM [direct message] a link to a six-hour documentary and say to somebody, ‘Watch this.’ But, you can DM a link to a highly-produced two-and-a-half minute video that will get people saying, ‘I need to learn more about this,’ ” said Luxenberg. “It’s a completely different model of storytelling. Just because we’ve been used to content being told over the course of one to three hours, that’s not the only way you can convey the story and pay homage to the subject.
Luxenberg told JNS it isn’t a matter of whittling down the Holocaust to small clips, but reframing the conversation to “how are you getting an audience,” noting that 1.6 million people visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2016. “We’ve had over 1.6 million people watching our videos in a week. That alone just shows you an impact already. And people are watching these videos because they’re choosing to. It’s not like a school-mandated field trip.”
Kastner concurred, rationalizing that even within a full-length film or documentary, “there are specific scenes that stand out. We don’t remember a three-hour documentary or movie in our heads. We remember specific scenes and moments and lines. And in every single one of the episodes, Montana or Zak [Jeffay, a tour guide from JRoots who joined the production] says something that just sends shivers down your spine. And that’s what we’re doing in the editing room.”
Those shivers are exactly what Tucker feels are most impactful. Her fans are used to seeing her joyful, dance-infused, playful content. This series turns it all on its head.
“In so many Holocaust documentaries, there are survivors sharing the stories, but I don’t think there’s ever been a grandchild sharing it through their perspective, where people that are closer to my age can relate,” she said. “You see all my raw, authentic emotions. You really feel like you’re there with me. And I think that’s why people are relating to it and seeing things differently.”