For days, under hot film lights, Holocaust survivors answer hundreds of questions about themselves and what they remember about the atrocities they endured and witnessed. The result is the highly renowned “Dimensions in Testimony,” a collection of powerful interactive biographies at University of Southern California Shoah Foundation.
For Rachel Baum, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who focuses her research on how new technologies such as holography and virtual reality impact our memory of the Holocaust, the testimonials are a poignant gift from survivors and are an important tool to combat antisemitism.
The survivors “want to leave a message for us,” said Baum, the deputy director of the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies. “This is a gift that the survivors are leaving for us because they so much want their story to live after them. For me that’s very powerful.”
Baum noted that many survivors have told their traumatic stories repeatedly over the last decades at schools, museums and while participating in forums and talks. Their efforts are intended to keep the Holocaust relevant and preserve its memory.
“They are desperate for us to understand and not forget. They give everything they can while they’re still here,” she said. “It’s a labor of blood, sweat and tears.”
Hologram-like interactives are just one example of the futuristic digital technologies that historians, researchers and advocates are currently creating and sharing to keep memories of the Holocaust alive, so that history does not repeat itself.
“What really drives these efforts of things like holograms and virtual reality is how to interest young people in this history and to help them to understand how relevant it is for today, that we must protect human rights, democracy and we have to be engaged citizens and care about other people. Because it’s not just history, it’s our present as well,” she said.
In addition to the “Dimensions in Testimony” collection made with special film techniques and natural voice technology, virtual reality films like “A Promise Kept” and “Don’t Forget Me” gives viewers an immersive 360-degree, real life experience of concentration camps and stories of survivors. The new-age material is not a replacement for books and other chronicles of the Holocaust, but a rich, powerful addition to humanity’s collective memory of the genocide, Baum said.
“Now there’s more possibilities, because the media keeps changing … so we have to keep telling the story in new ways for each new generation and its media,” she said.
The use of new forms of interactive and immersive technology is an effective way to combat the recruiting work of hate groups and the spread of antisemitic speech on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.
“You can see how the digital realm can breed hate, but it also can be used to stand up against hate,” Baum said. “That’s what makes it so interesting is that it’s not one or the other, it’s both.”
In addition, augmented reality apps that let users learn about the Holocaust when they are in certain historic locations are currently available.
The technology also comes with some major considerations such as how realistic filmmakers, producers and engineers should make the virtual experiences for the user.
“We, as a society, have to decide how we’re going to use this technology,” she said. “Do we want there to be virtual reality films of concentration camps?”
The technology also comes with great responsibility and broad questions about its appropriate uses. Some uses can be controversial such as in the case of “Eva Stories” on Instagram in which the story of a Jewish girl’s life in a concentration camp is documented on cell phone video as if it were happening today.
“Video games are a place where many of our young people are learning about certainly Nazism, if not specifically the Holocaust.” Baum said. “The digital realm is definitely very important and thinking about Holocaust memory and how young people and all of us moving forward are going to engage with Holocaust history.”
Another consideration is the preferences of the user. Some people would rather read an account rather than view a virtual reality film or interact with a hologram likeness of a survivor. Whatever the case may be, the investment and use of new technologies to share Holocaust memories shows how much we value this history, according to Baum.
“It’s our way of saying this is really important,” she said. “We’re not just going to say if we’ve done it once, we’re going to stop now. We keep finding new ways because we know that this is so important.”