SKOKIE, Ill. – As time passes and it becomes increasingly difficult to document the first-hand accounts of Holocaust survivors as their numbers dwindle, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center uses state-of-the-art technology to preserve the testimonies of some of the remaining survivors.
The museum claims 250,000 to 400,000 survivors are still alive around the world, and it’s keeping tabs on them in a first-of-its-kind double exposure. One of the exhibits, “The Journey Back: A VR Experience,” expands Holocaust remembrance through transportive storytelling, while “The Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience” allows visitors to pose survivor hologram questions and get real-time answers based on approximately 40 hours of recorded interviews.
The Cooper exhibition presents Dimensions in Testimony, developed by USC Holocaust Foundation in association with the Illinois Museum.
In the virtual reality experience, visitors wearing headsets are guided by Holocaust survivors Fritzie Fritzshall or George Brent through the historic and current concentration camps of Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Ebensee.
Fritzshall, who died last year, returned to Auschwitz in 2018 to direct the virtual reality film. Because Brent was too fragile to travel to Europe, the filmmakers used green screen technology to place him in the locations he depicts, such as concentration camp barracks.
As survivors share their harrowing experiences, visitors sit in a blue swivel chair that helps them control their experiences 360 degrees.
The 12-minute film starring Brent, 93, begins by telling him how he found a photo of his father and another of himself in ‘The Auschwitz Scrapbook’, a book he discovered in a bookstore in 1981.
“I ran with them to show people that this is proof that I was really in Auschwitz,” he recalls in the film.
Ebensee, a concentration camp in Austria where Brent was sent when he was 15, is now a suburban town, but the VR film ensures the historic grounds are preserved, he said.
“What struck me was the change that these places go through over the years, and what I’m afraid of is that they will eventually disappear,” he said in an interview. .
Susan Abrams, CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, said it gives her chills to think that such technology is available while survivors are still alive to share their stories.
Being immersed in a virtual reality headset “moves people in a different way,” she said.
“Instead of passively reading something or watching something, you are engaged in it,” she added. “If the technology is working well, which it is, it fades into the background.”
But it’s not all about the technology; it’s also about the powerful historical story, she said.
“When George’s family first experienced it, I was so struck and so proud when one of them said, ‘Wow, I’ve heard the story so many times. But until I put on that helmet and was there with it, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it like this.
Brent and his family were put on a train to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland in May 1944 from their home in former Téscö, Hungary, part of present-day Ukraine. Upon arrival, Brent and his father were ordered to work, and his mother and younger brother were killed in the gas chambers.
In the film, he describes his trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau as the three worst days of his life. He said the virtual reality experience, which tries to capture the train ride by making viewers feel like they’re in the carriage surrounded by people crying, coughing and screaming, “is so realistic.”
Divine Olikaju, 15, a student at the Military Academy in Chicago, tried the experience of virtual reality during a trip to the museum. He and his classmates also met Brent, who happened to be there.
“Just being in the boxcar at the VR plaza, I felt a little scared, being cramped among everyone,” he said. “Just being in there, it was very immersive. I think it will be a useful tool to teach other kids what happened.
Abrams said first-hand accounts are the “most powerful way to build empathy and understanding of our common humanity,” adding that the museum is making three more virtual reality films.
“Right now, as we see an increase [not only] anti-Semitism but in all forms of hate and bigotry, we are so, so grateful to be able to share these stories,” she said. “Technology will also make it scalable, so ultimately millions of people will be able to have these experiences.”