Museums are turning to immersive technology to preserve the stories of aging Holocaust survivors

Most Holocaust survivors are in their 80s and 90s. From year to year, fewer and fewer of them tell us their story. Thus, museums and archives use advanced technologies to preserve their testimonies and present them to new generations.

For example, at Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center In Skokie, you can don a virtual reality headset and step into the world of survivor George Brent, as the terrified teenager descended from a boxcar at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.

“There was a lot of screaming -“Raus, raus, schnell, schnell! Leave it all behind!” he says in the 12-minute film. It’s part of the exhibit.The Journey Home: A Virtual Reality Experience“, which takes viewers from that heartbreaking first separation from his family to the grueling slave labor that Brent was then forced to perform in the mines of Ebensee concentration camp in Austria.

Brent, now 93, is sweet and cheerful as he recalls doing his part of ‘The Journey Back’ on a Zoom call with NPR. He was too fragile to take a trip to Europe, he says, so the VR film based on his testimony used green screens to place him in some of the places he describes, such as the barracks of the men’s concentration camp and loading docks at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Standing in front of a green screen, survivor George Brent recounts his experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the VR film “Don’t Forget Me.” (Illinois Holocaust Museum)

Turning around, wearing the helmet, you’ll also find yourself transported inside charcoal drawings that communicate the darkness and terror of his experience in Nazi-run camps and quarries.

A still from ‘Don’t Forget Me’, depicting the mining tunnels at Ebensee concentration camp in Austria, where George Brent and other inmates were forced to perform slave labor. (Illinois Holocaust Museum)

“It gives me chills when I think about it, that this technology has become available just in time to capture these stories,” said Susan Abrams, CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. For years, she says, many survivors have told their stories to visitors in person. The museum began making “The Journey Back” in 2017 and spent more than seven characters recreating Brent’s testimony as a virtual reality experience. The story of another survivor, Fritzie Fritzshall, is also told in a separate film. (A former president of the museum, Fritzshall has died aged 91 shortly after the end of his testimony in virtual reality).

But using new technologies to capture the stories of survivors is nothing new, says Todd Presner, professor at UCLAwho studies the Holocaust and digital culture.

It describes the work of David Boder, an American psychology professor who used the advanced technology of the time to record testimonies from 1946.

“He took this wire recorder to displaced persons camps across Europe, interviewing survivors in multiple languages ​​and really, the first to record their voices,” he says. (These interviews have been archived online by the Illinois Institute of Technology as Voices of the Holocaust).

The interviews were particularly powerful, adds Presner, at a time when the news was largely silent and images of survivors were seen, not heard. Likewise, he says,The Journey Home: A Virtual Reality Experience“makes the Holocaust feel immediate, especially for people who have never had the opportunity to visit places like the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum in Poland.

But virtual reality isn’t the only technology that’s transforming the way we see — and increasingly interact with — the testimonies of survivors. USC Holocaust Foundation, founded by director Steven Spielberg in 1994, is one of the largest digital collections of survivor testimonies in the world. At this time, his Acting Executive Director Kori Street stands in its quiet lobby, facing a life-size screen of an old man in a pink upholstered chair.

“Pinchas, can you tell us your story? they ask.

The man, Pinchas Gutter, looks a bit like actor Anthony Hopkins. Gutter, who survived six concentration camps, still lives in Toronto Canada. On screen, Gutter blinks and appears to be calming down. “I was born in 1932, in Łódź”, he begins. The artificial intelligence that allows Gutter to answer dozens of questions required a solid week of filming and seemingly endless requests from various callers, including children.

Young people, Street says, tend to be braver in asking tough questions of a digitally rendered survivor rather than an older person in person, whose feelings they often want to protect. And interactive experiences like this are more engaging for many visitors than just passively gazing at the Foundation’s massive collection of testimonial archives. “There’s no reason we can’t take these 2D testimonials, of which we have 55,000, and adapt them to work with AI,” Street says.

As for the next step in technology, Street acknowledges all of these hugely popular exhibits featuring the work of hugely popular artists. “There’s a lot of debate about a lot of these immersive experiences. Van Gogh’s, more recently Frida Kahlo’s. People either like [them] or they don’t, but museums – to get people in, they have to keep it going.”

The idea of ​​”Auschwitz: The Immersive Experience” may seem tasteless at best and Westworld at worst. But to enter into the history of the Holocaust, an immersive experience could be presented with attention, authenticity and care, says Sarah Lumbard. She is Director of Museum Experience and Digital Media at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“In virtual reality, we looked at – how do you explain the Warsaw ghetto experience,” she says. “How could we explain this, truly transporting you to the ghetto? And more specifically, looking at how do you see…and bring to life a group’s effort to preserve the evidence that was later found after the war? It’s something you do to create a whole new world, a world that doesn’t exist, that’s why players use it.”

“There are great applications of game theory for learning about the Holocaust without it turning into something dangerous, i.e. dark tourism,” says Kori Street.

At a time when hate crimes have risen sharply and members of Congress have trivialized the experiences of survivors, directors of Holocaust museums say their stories matter more than ever. And new technologies and new tools, used correctly, can bring that history home.

Copyright NPR 2022.

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