Jan. 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day designated by the United Nations to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27, 1945 and honor the six million Jews and five million others murdered by the Nazis.
Located in Oświęcim, Poland, about 40 miles west of Kraków, Auschwitz now functions as a museum and education center, a tourist attraction through which more than 536,000 people visited in 2021 alone. But it is also a cemetery, a graveyard of bones and hair and the stolen shoes of the 1.1 million men, women and children, a vast majority of whom were Jews, murdered in the camp’s gas chambers and crematoria. Seventy-eight years after the infamous Nazi death camp was liberated by Allied forces, the ashes from human cremains commingle with the clouds and sky above. Of the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, most of them were killed at Auschwitz. It was the deadliest Nazi extermination camp.
As anyone who’s visited Auschwitz can attest: you emerge from the experience a person changed forever. That was Montana Tucker’s experience. In June 2022, the award-winning dancer, singer, content creator and social media juggernaut made the journey — along with her mother, Michelle — documenting her experience in roughly two-minute long TikTok reels which she cross-posted on Instagram. The reels, titled “How To: Never Forget,” have, thus far, been viewed over seven million times. YouTube has since picked up the 10-episode TikTok doc, repackaging the reels as one contiguous documentary which bowed on the platform Jan. 18. “How To: Never Forget” is also still available on YouTube as individualized reels.
Tucker, a “proud Jew” and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, has been a longtime advocate for Holocaust education. Growing up in Boca Raton, Fla., Tucker was “extra, extra close” with her zaidie (Yiddish for grandfather) and grandma on her maternal side, Lilly and Michael Schmidmayer, both of whom survived Auschwitz. Her Instagram feed is filled with photos of Tucker and her grandparents.
“My whole life, I always knew my grandparents’ stories,” Tucker, who counts more than 8.5 million TikTok followers and nearly 3 million on Instagram, tells Variety. “I’ve always felt very, very attached to them. They used to speak at all the schools down in Florida. My Zaide would always say that his life goal was to educate, educate, educate, to make sure that people would never forget. He would wear a pin that said, ‘I’m a survivor.’ That was always very important to both my grandparents.”
When Tucker’s grandfather passed away in Aug. 2019, she rewatched her grandparents’ USC Shoah Foundation testimonials, which had been recorded years prior. Founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994, the non-profit org has created an extensive catalog of audio-visual interviews with survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides.
“I saw them when I was a kid, of course, but hearing them as an adult — you obviously feel it way way deeper,” says Tucker, who has performed in opening acts for such artists as Ciara, Pitbull, Flo Rida and Lil Wayne.
It was the Sept. 2020 release of the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, in which an astounding 63% of millennials and Generation Z respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered, coupled with the spiking rates of Antisemitism — per FBI hate crime statistics, Jews remain the most targeted ethnoreligious group in the United States — that spurred Tucker to action.
“I knew I had to do something,” she recalls. “I just wasn’t exactly sure what that was.”
Enter: Israel Schachter, the Toronto-based founder and CEO of philanthropic org CharityBids. It was Schachter, a producer on “How To: Never Forget,” that arranged for Tucker and her mother to visit Poland and shoot footage for what would become the documentary project. (Rachel Kaster, another producer on the project, is also the grandchild of Holocaust survivors.)
“I think everyone today is so scared to say anything or stand up for anything, because they’re afraid they’re going to offend somebody,” says Schachter. “And it’s like, Why do you have this platform, if you’re not using it to change the world for good and make an impact and to teach people? There’s one particular artist that I’m very close with — she identifies as Jewish and has over 20 million social media followers. I said to her, ‘You see how Jews are being attacked left, right and center. Why don’t you speak up?’ And she said, ‘You don’t understand. I have a brand. I have a platform.’ Because, you know, as a Jew you get penalized. So, I said to her, ‘Hitler didn’t care about your brand. He didn’t care how many followers you had. If you were a Jew, you were a Jew. And I think people miss that point.”
“What’s so inspiring to me about Montana is that she’s just starting up and she’s got a big following,” Schachter continues. “It would be very easy for her to say, it just isn’t worth it. But she’s determined to educate, to teach the world.”
In Poland, Tucker visited several extermination camps, including Belzec, the first killing center built by the Nazis, and Auschwitz, where Tucker’s four great-grandparents perished. Tucker’s grandmother, Lilly, miraculously escaped, darting out of the line where she stood holding the hand of her mother, Blima, who was sent to her death in the gas chamber. Marched like cattle toward the gas chamber, Blima knew her death was imminent. By ordering her daughter to flee, she saved her life.
It’s the reason Montana is alive today.
“I’d seen every movie, every documentary, but nothing can prepare you for the moment you’re standing there,” says Tucker.
At Auschwitz, Tucker and her mother stood, arm in arm, in the exact same spot where her grandmother, Lilly, last saw Blima before she was murdered.
“It was a moment that will stay with me forever,” says Tucker. “It was also the first time I ever felt empowered. Because the Nazis — they were trying to erase every sign of us. And there we were, two Jewish women, standing there to honor my grandmother, who is still alive. We were obviously both crying, and we had to stop the cameras for a second because we wanted to call my grandmother at home. She’s had Alzheimer’s now for over 14 years. And we FaceTimed with her.”
There was so much to cover, Tucker wasn’t sure how she would manage to chronicle it all. Her crew logged over 100 hours of footage and, while she plans on creating a long-form version someday, Tucker knew that to capture the attention of today’s impressionable youth, a generation most in need of Holocaust education, TikTok docs was the most effective format.
The edited version of the footage comes out to roughly 24 minutes a short enough length to be used as an educational tool at schools and various other educational orgs (watch it below). Tucker is also speaking to school-aged audiences nationwide.
“Kids today just don’t have the attention span to watch something long,” says Tucker. “Kids are always on their phones. It was difficult to get it all in there, and there’s so much more I eventually want to share, but I feel like the parts we chose, every episode had something really important. And you can watch one episode without seeing the others. You can scroll down to it on your phone. You don’t even have to watch all the episodes–you can just pick and choose. That’s what we wanted, for each episode to stand as its own separate thing.”
With Holocaust conspiracy theories abounding and high-profile celebrities such as Ye, who has more followers on social media than there are Jews in the entire world, spouting Antisemitic rhetoric–along with the fact that few Holocaust survivors remain alive, the timing — and to reach Gen-Z — has never been more crucial.
Says Tucker: “Their favorite athletes and their favorite rappers are spewing Antisemitic comments — these kids don’t know any better. They’re genuinely not being taught anything else.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) believes that, “Younger generations must take up the torch of remembrance.” He finds Tucker’s work inspiring. “To see a young social media influencer using her platform to educate about the history of the Holocaust and raise awareness of modern-day antisemitism, Montana Tucker has done an incredible service in sharing her emotional journey through her family history with her millions of followers.”
Dan Luxenberg, CEO of SoulShop and a producer on “How To: Never Forget,” also hopes the documentary will reach multiple age groups. “I think we’re going to hit a whole new audience with YouTube, because it’s going to be used for individual viewing but it’s also going to be used for co-viewing experiences,” he says. “It used to be, everyone stop watching TV and come to the family dinner table to chat. Now it’s more like, get off your phones and come watch TV as a family.”
When Tucker embarked on the project, a process she describes as “very intense, and very heavy,” she didn’t know what the public reception would be. Her reputation is that of an upbeat, happy-go-lucky entertainer, clips of her dancing around smiling consuming much of her social media feed. Because of her last name and blonde hair, a large majority of her followers didn’t even know that Tucker was Jewish: “That’s what offends me the most,” she says. “It’s extremely biased.”
“To see me on the doc, you know, crying and experiencing something that’s very dark and heavy — it was a risk for me,” adds Tucker. “I wasn’t sure what the reaction was going to be. I’d posted pictures of my grandparents in the past, just happy pictures of my grandparents. After the documentary reels came out, thousands of people unfollowed me.”
But that’s no deterrent to Tucker, who is currently working on myriad other educational projects, including one about the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities. “We should all be coming together,” says Tucker. “I have friends that are Jewish and they will speak up about everything except for Antisemitism, because they are afraid to miss out on job opportunities. And that’s just crazy to me. If you have a platform, then you should be using it to speak out. You want peace–that’s the goal here. At least that’s my goal. I’m Jewish, and I’m always talking about it, and I always will be talking about it. And I’m very, very proud.”