TikTok star Montana Tucker has expanded the reach of Holocaust docs through YouTube7 min read
January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day designated by the United Nations to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1945, and to honor the six million Jews and five million others killed by the Nazis.
Located in Oświęcim, Poland, about 40 miles west of Kraków, Auschwitz now serves as a museum and educational center, a tourist attraction that was visited by more than 536,000 people in 2021 alone. But it is a graveyard, a graveyard of bones and hair and the stolen shoes of 1.1 million men, women and children, the vast majority of whom were Jews, killed in the camp’s gas chambers and crematoria. 78 years after the infamous Nazi death camp was liberated by the Allies, ash from human feces meets the clouds and sky. Sixty million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, most of them in Auschwitz. It was the deadliest Nazi extermination camp.
As anyone who has visited Auschwitz can attest: you emerge from the experience a person forever changed. That was the Montana Tucker experience. In June 2022, the award-winning dancer, singer, content creator and social media juggernaut – along with her mother Michelle – documented her experiences in a nearly two-minute TikTok relay that she cross-posted on Instagram. Titled “How: Never Forget,” the reels have been viewed seven million times to date. YouTube has since picked up the 10-episode TikTok doc, repackaging the reels as an accompanying documentary that debuted on the platform on January 18. “How To: Never Forget” is still available on YouTube as a standalone reel
Tucker, a “proud Jew” and grandson of Holocaust survivors, has long advocated for Holocaust education. Boca Raton, Fla. Growing up, Taka was “extra, extra close” to her Zaidi (Yiddish for grandfather) and his maternal grandmothers, Lili and Michael Schmidmeier, both survived Auschwitz. Her Instagram feed is filled with pictures of Tucker and her grandparents.
“My whole life, I always knew my grandparents’ story,” said Tucker, who has more than 8.5 million TikTok followers and nearly 3 million on Instagram. diversity. “I’ve always felt very, very connected to them. They spoke at schools all over Florida. My Zayed always said that his mission in life was to educate, educate, educate, to make sure people never forget. He wore a pin that said, ‘I am a survivor.’ It was always very important to both my grandparents.”
When Tucker’s grandfather died in August 2019, he revisited his grandparents’ USC Shoah Foundation testimonials, which had been recorded years earlier. Founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994, the nonprofit has produced an extensive catalog of audio-visual interviews with survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides.
“Obviously I watched them as a kid, but hearing them as an adult — you obviously feel it more deeply,” said Tucker, who has opened for artists such as Ciara, Pitbull, Flo Rida and Lil Wayne.
This was the September 2020 release of the US Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, in which a surprising 63% of Millennial and Generation Z respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered, with an increase in hatred toward the FBI. Crime statistics show that Jews remain the most targeted ethnic group in the United States — prompting Tucker to take action.
“I knew I had to do something,” she recalls. “I wasn’t exactly sure what it was.”
Enter: Israel Schachter, founder and CEO of Toronto-based philanthropy CharityBids. One of the producers of “How To: Never Forget” was Schechter, who arranged for Tucker and his mother to travel to Poland and shoot footage for what would become a documentary project. (Rachel Custer, another producer on the project, is also the grandson of Holocaust survivors.)
“I think everybody today is afraid to say something or stand up for something, because they’re afraid they’re going to offend somebody,” Schachter says. “And it’s like, why do you have this platform, if you’re not going to use it to change the world for good and impact and teach people? There’s one particular artist I’m very close to – he identifies as Jewish and has over 20 million social media followers. I told him, ‘You see how Jews are being attacked left, right and centre. Why are you not talking?’ He said, ‘You don’t understand. I have a brand. I have a platform.’ Because, you know, as a Jew you can be punished. So, I told him, ‘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 inspiring to me about Montana is that he’s just starting out and he’s got a big following,” Schachter continued. “It would be too easy for him to say, it’s not worth it. But he is determined to educate, to teach the world.”
In Poland, Tucker visited several extermination camps, including Belzec, the first extermination center built by the Nazis, and Auschwitz, where four of Tucker’s grandparents died. Tucker’s grandmother, Lily, had a miraculous escape, stepping out of the line where she stood holding the hand of her mother, Blima, who was being sent to her death in the gas chamber. Marching like cattle toward the gas chamber, Blima knew his death was imminent. He saved her life by ordering her daughter to escape.
This is why Montana is alive today.
“I’ve seen every movie, every documentary, but nothing can prepare you for the moment you’re standing there,” Tucker says.
In Auschwitz, Tucker and his mother stood hand in hand, in the exact spot where his grandmother, Lili, last saw Blima before she was killed.
“It’s a moment that will stay with me forever,” Tucker said. “It was also the first time I felt empowered. Because the Nazis – they were trying to erase every trace of us. And there we were, two Jewish women, standing to honor my grandmother, who is still alive. We were both crying, and we had to turn off the camera for a second because we wanted to call my grandmother home. He has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for over 14 years now And we Facetimed him.”
There was so much to cover, Tucker wasn’t sure how he would manage to chronicle it all. His crew logged more than 100 hours of footage and, while he plans to one day create a long-form version, Takka knew that TikTok Docs was the most effective format to capture the attention of today’s impressionable youth, the generation most in need of Holocaust education.
The edited version of the footage came to a short enough length of around 24 minutes to be used as an educational tool in schools and various other educational institutions (see below). Tucker also speaks to school-aged audiences nationwide.
“Kids these days don’t have the attention span to watch anything for long,” says Tuck. “Kids are always on their phones. It was hard to get it all in there, and there’s a lot more that I want to share eventually, but I think the parts that we chose, there was something really important in each episode. And you can watch one episode without watching another. You can scroll through 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, each episode to stand as its own separate thing.”
Holocaust conspiracy theories abound and with high-profile celebrities like Yee, who has more followers on social media than Jews worldwide, they promote anti-Semitic rhetoric – along with the fact that few Holocaust survivors are still alive, time – and Gen-Z- Getting to – was never more important.
Tucker said: “Their favorite athletes and their favorite rappers making antisemitic comments — these kids don’t know any better. They are not really being taught anything else.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the ADL (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 use her platform to educate about Holocaust history and raise awareness of modern-day anti-Semitism, Montana Tucker has done an incredible service sharing her emotional journey through her family’s history with her millions of followers. “
Dan Luxenberg, CEO of SoulShop and a producer of “How To: Never Forget,” also hopes the documentary will reach multiple age groups. “I think we’re going to reach a whole new audience with YouTube, because it’s going to be used for in-person viewing but it’s also going to be used for co-viewing experiences,” he says. “Earlier, everyone stopped watching TV and came to the family dinner table to chat. Now it feels better, turn off your phone and watch TV as a family.”
When Tucker embarked on the project, a process he describes as “very intense, and very heavy,” he didn’t know what the public reception would be. Her reputation is that of an upbeat, happy-go-lucky entertainer, with her smiling dance clips taking up much of her social media feed. Because of his last name and blond hair, a large majority of his followers didn’t even know Tucker was Jewish: “That’s what bothers me the most,” he says. “It’s extremely biased.”
“To see me in the dock, you know, crying and feeling something that’s so dark and heavy — that was a risk for me,” adds Tucker. “I wasn’t sure what the reaction was going to be. I used to post pictures of my grandparents in the past, just pictures of my grandparents. Thousands of people unfollowed me after the documentary reel came out.
But that’s no deterrent for Tucker, who is currently working on countless other educational projects, including the relationship between the black and Jewish communities. “We should all come together,” Tucker said. “I have friends who are Jewish and they will talk about everything except anti-Semitism, because they are afraid of losing a job. And that’s just crazy to me. If you have a platform, you should use it to speak up. You want peace – that’s the goal here. At least that’s my goal. I’m Jewish, and I’ve always talked about it, and I’ll always talk about it. And I’m very, very proud.”