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Online dilemma: Can the dead be your 'friends'

[ 2010-02-10 11:36]     字号 [] [] []  
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WARSAW, Poland: 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.

Users of Facebook and MySpace have long been creating memorial pages for friends and family - and China's Baidu bulletin board allows something similar - but these new projects aim to rekindle lives of the more distant dead who might otherwise be forgotten.

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.

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

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.

Henio and his family were forced in 1941 by the Nazis to live in Lublin's ghetto - one of the hellish places where many Polish Jews died from a lack of food, diseases or random executions.

At some point in 1942 Henio and his father Szmuel were sent to the nearby Majdanek death camp, and it is believed he died there by early 1943. His father was killed there soon after.


1. Is Poland the only place where the “dead” have Facebook pages?

2. How did the little 6-year-old Polish boy die?

3. How does the dead boy “speak” on Facebook?


1. Users of Facebook and MySpace have long been creating memorial pages for friends and family - and China's Baidu bulletin board allows something similar.

2. The boy was murdered in the Holocaust during World War II.

3. Friends and family members pretend to speak in his voice about him going to school.


(中国日报网英语点津 Helen 编辑)

Online dilemma: Can the dead be your 'friends'

About the broadcaster:

Online dilemma: Can the dead be your 'friends'

Renee Haines is an editor and broadcaster at China Daily. Renee has more than 15 years of experience as a newspaper editor, radio station anchor and news director, news-wire service reporter and bureau chief, magazine writer, book editor and website consultant. She came to China from the United States.