Holocaust museum’s virtual reality exhibit is ‘so real looking’

SKOKIE, Ill. — As time passes and it turns into more and more tough to doc the firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors as their numbers wane, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is utilizing cutting-edge expertise to protect the testimonies of a number of the remaining survivors.

The museum says 250,000 to 400,000 survivors are nonetheless alive worldwide, and it trains a watch on them in a first-of-its-kind double exhibition. One of the exhibitions, “The Journey Back: A VR Experience,” expands the sphere of Holocaust reminiscence by way of transportive storytelling, whereas “The Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience” permits guests to ask questions of survivors’ holograms and get real-time responses primarily based on about 40 hours of recorded interviews.

The Cooper exhibit options Dimensions in Testimony, developed by USC Shoah Foundation in affiliation with the Illinois museum.

In the virtual reality expertise, guests sporting headsets are led by Holocaust survivors Fritzie Fritzshall or George Brent by way of the historic and current-day Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Ebensee focus camps.

George Brent records a session with a green screen behind him.
George Brent information a session with a inexperienced display screen behind him.NBC News

Fritzshall, who died final yr, traveled again to Auschwitz in 2018 to make the virtual reality movie. Because Brent was too fragile to journey to Europe, the filmmakers used green-screen expertise to put him within the places he describes, akin to focus camp barracks. 

As the survivors share their harrowing experiences, guests sit in a blue swivel chair that helps them management their 360-degree experiences. 

The 12-minute movie that includes Brent, 93, begins with him sharing how he discovered an image of his father and one other one among himself in “The Auschwitz Album,” a e-book he found in a bookstore in 1981.

“I ran with them to show people that here is the proof that I really was in Auschwitz,” he remembers within the movie.

George Brent points to a picture of himself at Auschwitz.
George Brent factors to an image of himself at Auschwitz.NBC News

Ebensee, a focus camp in Austria the place Brent was despatched at age 15, is now a suburban city, however the VR movie ensures that the historic grounds are preserved, he mentioned. 

“What struck me is the change these places go through over the years, and what I am afraid of is eventually they will disappear,” he mentioned in an interview.  

Susan Abrams, the CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, mentioned it provides her chills to suppose that such expertise is out there whereas survivors are nonetheless alive to share their tales. 

Being immersed in a virtual reality headset “moves people in a different way,” she mentioned.

“Instead of passively reading something or watching something, you are engaged in it,” she added. “If the technology is working well, which it does, it fades into the background.”

But it’s not all concerning the tech; it’s additionally concerning the highly effective historic story, she mentioned.

Drone operators prepare to capture video of Auschwitz.
Drone operators put together to seize video of Auschwitz.NBC News

“When George’s family experienced it for the first time, I was so struck and so proud when one of them said: ‘Wow, I’ve heard the story so many times. But until I had that headset on and I was standing there with him, I don’t think I ever experienced it quite like this.’”

Brent and his household had been placed on a prepare to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland in May 1944 from their dwelling within the former Téscö, Hungary, which is a part of present-day Ukraine. When they arrived, Brent and his father had been ordered to work, and his mom and youthful brother had been killed within the fuel chambers. 

In the movie, he describes his journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau because the worst three days of his life. He mentioned the virtual reality expertise, which tries to seize the prepare journey by making viewers really feel as if they’re within the boxcar surrounded by folks crying, coughing and screaming, “is so realistic.”

Divine Olikaju, 15, a scholar on the Chicago Military Academy, tried the virtual reality expertise on a subject journey to the museum. He and his classmates additionally met Brent, who occurred to be there.

Divine Olikaju, 15, a student at the Chicago Military Academy, speaks with George Brent.
Divine Olikaju, 15, a scholar on the Chicago Military Academy, speaks with George Brent.

“Just being in the boxcar at the VR place, I felt kind of scared myself, being cramped among all the people,” he mentioned. “Just being in there, it was very immersive. I think it will be a useful tool to teach other kids what happened.” 

Abrams mentioned firsthand testimonies are the “most powerful way to develop empathy and an understanding of our common humanity,” including that the museum is making three extra virtual reality movies. 

“At this moment in time, when we’re seeing a rise in [not only] antisemitism but in all forms of hatred and bigotry, we’re so, so grateful to be able to have these stories to share,” she mentioned. “Technology will make it scalable, too, so that ultimately millions can have these experiences.”

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