Local filmmaker brings virtual reality to D.C. Holocaust museum

 

Imagine — It’s spring 1943 and you’re wandering through a courtyard in the now-abandoned Warsaw ghetto. It’s eerily silent. Snow begins to fall. A distant train horn sounds. 

Then, you realize: It’s not snow. It’s hundreds of down feathers drifting from the bedding an entire Jewish community has left behind.

Soon, you may hardly have to imagine.

Through a budding partnership, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. and two Milwaukee-based companies are developing virtual reality experiences to bring more interactivity to Holocaust education and immerse visitors in chilling scenes like this one.

Local Jewish filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, president of 371 Productions, is spearheading the effort and working with developers at Foresight, a local virtual reality company. The team built a prototype, which included the snow/feather scene, that they tested with visitors and staff at the museum in fall 2019. 

The virtual experience is impactful without being overly graphic. 

“It’s very impressionistic,” Lichtenstein says. “It’s death — a lot of death — but we’re not seeing death.”

Building the VR experience

The project is more than three years in the making. Lichtenstein first connected with a museum staff member in June 2016 after speaking on a panel about virtual reality at AFI Docs, the American Film Institute’s documentary film festival.

Throughout many subsequent conversations about how to appropriately use virtual reality to connect audiences with Holocaust history, Lichtenstein and museum staff agreed on a subject: The Oneg Shabbat archive, which was secretly assembled by a group of Jews between 1939 and 1943. Organized by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, the group collected journals, poems, articles, letters and photos to record Jewish perspectives about life in the Warsaw ghetto.

Lichtenstein and his team were inspired by a documentary film on the same subject called “Who Will Write Our History.” Directed by Roberta Grossman, it features a scene based on a diary entry from Rachel Auerbach — a writer, Holocaust survivor and member of the Oneg Shabbat — about the day after most of the Jews in the ghetto were liquidated. 

In their prototype, which was built in four weeks, Lichtenstein and his team recreated that scene, which features Auerbach standing alone in an abandoned courtyard as feathers drift around her. The team was thoughtful about making the virtual experience feel immersive but respectful.

“We don’t want you to be Rachel — we want you to identify with Rachel,” Lichtenstein says. “It’s important to help people feel empathy but not to suggest that anyone could understand someone else’s lived experience.”

Lichtenstein and his team are still waiting for a green light from the museum to move forward. The next step would be to spend more time building out the virtual reality experience as they move closer to presenting the exhibit to the public.

“We haven’t finalized any type of commitment,” says Michael Haley Goldman, director of future projects at the museum. Goldman’s job was to shepherd the project through its infant stages, but now, the decision sits with other museum staff members.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Goldman says.

For Lichtenstein, it would be a dream project realized.

“As a company, we try to only do work that we care about,” he says. “It kind of felt like a moonshot.”

The team tested their virtual reality prototype at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in fall 2019. From left to right: Elena Hoffenberg, USHMM 2019-2020 digital humanities associate fellow; Brad Lichtenstein, president of 371 Productions; Hector Borges, virtual reality developer at Foresight; Jeff Fleetwood, virtual reality developer at Foresight; Michael Haley Goldman, USHMM director of future projects; Sara Pitcairn, USHMM prototype developer and researcher. Photo courtesy of Brad Lichtenstein.