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Virtual reality is educating new generations about the Holocaust

A young visitor experiences "A Promise Kept" at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
Scott Edwards
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Illinois Holocaust Museum
A young visitor experiences "A Promise Kept" at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

One day soon, there will be no more Holocaust survivors. The passage of time will eventually take all the men and women who survived the Nazi genocide of European Jews.

Dr. Alan Marcus, a professor in UConn’s Neag School of Education, has been part of a research team looking at how to use cutting-edge technology to preserve and share the stories of Holocaust survivors.

He's also worked to incorporate this technology in museums in the U.S. and Europe and in classrooms as a way to teach future generations.

He spoke with Morning Edition's Lori Mack.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Lori Mack: Why is this the time to reimagine the way we preserve and share the stories of the Holocaust?

Dr. Alan Marcus: We're moving from a time of lived memory to a time of learned memory. Our survivors are not going to be around much longer. They have this lived memory, they can tell their own personal stories and people relate to that, that's really important.

Museums and educators are trying to figure out what do we do when we don't have live survivors anymore. Survivors have been integral to Holocaust education, in every respect, we wouldn't have all these Holocaust museums in the United States, I think, without survivors sharing their memories and helping to motivate people. For them not to be here, that's a really huge seismic shift.

We know also from statistics provided by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center that rates of hate crimes, rates of antisemitism, have risen incredibly in the past four to five years. So I think that's part of our context.

Mack: People have been making audio and video recordings of survivors for many years. What's different about the work you've been doing with technology?

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center..jpg
Courtesy of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
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Filled chairs in the Richard and Jill Chaifetz Family Virtual Reality Gallery.

Marcus: There's two types of newer technology that's out there. One is holograms, for lack of a better word, or virtual interactive survivors. This was started by the Shoah Foundation. When Steven Spielberg came out with Schindler's List, the profits from that went to the Shoah Foundation and they started filming survivors. Then with new technology, they're now able to film survivors in 3D, almost like a hologram, and you can interact with the survivors. You can ask a question, and the survivor will respond to you, most of the time.

The second are VR experiences. Museums are looking at how can they use virtual reality to have survivors continue to share their stories. At the Illinois Holocaust Museum, they're the first Holocaust museum to use virtual reality with survivors. In their short videos, you can put your headset on and connect with a survivor.

They tell you a little bit about their story and then they transport you to Europe. You might see their childhood home, you might see where they experienced some things during the Holocaust, and then they take you to Auschwitz.

Mack: In terms of the technology, how did you prepare for people to ask questions [of recorded survivors]? How does that work?

Marcus: They filmed survivors for an entire week and asked them thousands of questions. The computer will recognize those questions and [give] a [recorded] response. The downside is it's a fixed point in time.

With the Ukraine war going on now, if they were speaking, they might refer to the Ukraine war, and how Poland took in so many refugees, and how we learned from the Holocaust because of that. But if they're not living during that time, they can't do that, so that's a limitation.

For the virtual reality, it's similar. They use specialized cameras that can capture them. They obviously went on location in Europe to do filming. The other interesting thing they did for the Auschwitz component of the video, is they had to do some re-creation, because not all the buildings still exist. So they use actual photos and can make a 3D image.

Mack: So what's been the reaction?

Marcus: General reaction is very positive. There's a lot of potential here, but I think there's still a lot of work to go to figure out how to use it effectively.

Mack: How do you feel about the project? Is this turning out the way you expected?

Marcus: I wasn't sure what to expect. I've heard many survivors speak and I was skeptical that anything could replace a survivor. I would maintain that I still think that.

Nothing's gonna replace a live survivor coming in, interacting with kids in real time. But that's not an option. Virtual reality is our new reality.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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