Auschwitz 2.0: How a Tech Revolution Changes Holocaust Commemoration

Terms like 'experiential' and 'augmented reality' in relation to Holocaust museum exhibitions may be disconcerting, but it's one way to draw young visitors

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An image from “The Journey Back: A VR Experience” at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Chicago.
An image from 'The Journey Back: A VR Experience' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Chicago.Credit: Winikur Productions/Illinois Hol
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

The most recent International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on January 27, marked a change in how the events of World War II are being presented and commemorated in Holocaust museums around the world.

This year, in many museums, the long tradition of physical exhibits and face-to-face encounters with Holocaust survivors is being replaced with exhibits and encounters mediated by immersive virtual or augmented reality technologies.

“Most Holocaust survivors are in their 80s or 90s. With every year, fewer remain to tell us their stories. So museums and archives are using advanced technologies to preserve their testimonies and introduce them to new generations,” Neda Ulaby writes on the NPR website. Many in the field believe that the new media promote interactive museum experiences in place of passive viewing. Young visitors often find it easier to ask difficult questions when the figures they’re meeting are holograms.

The transition to advanced media that breathe “life” into the displays is particularly necessary now, Ulaby writes, “at a time when hate crimes have risen sharply and members of Congress have trivialized survivors’ experiences. Holocaust museum directors say [survivors’] stories are more important than ever.”

“The Journey Back: A VR Experience” at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Chicago is a notable example of this trend. The exhibition marks the first time a Holocaust museum has made use of virtual reality technology.

Viewers "join" the survivors as the endure hellish experiences.Credit: Winikur Productions/Illinois Hol

The exhibition centers on two short films, which recount the stories of George Brent and Fritzie Fritzhall, survivors of the camps. Viewers watch the films through VR headsets, joining the survivors and accompanying them as they endure the hellish experiences – being separated from their families, being transported in the cattle car, slave labor in the mines. In the background, Nazi storm troops can be heard shouting, “Raus, raus, schnell, schnell!”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., also recently took a technological step forward, launching a smartphone app that enables visitors to interact with the exhibitions in augmented reality. Michael Haley Goldman, the museum’s director of future projects, has said, “This initiative aims to make Holocaust history relevant, engaging and personal for visitors, especially youth who are developing different expectations for their museum visit compared to other generations.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The litany of new terms appearing in ads for virtual exhibitions at Holocaust museums are somewhat disconcerting: “experiential,” “technological innovation,” “virtual reality,” “augmented reality,” “an exhibition that changes the rules of the game,” “a revolution in Holocaust commemoration.” We’re talking about the Holocaust, after all, not some new product on the market.

The use of innovative technology in Holocaust commemoration stirs mixed feelings. It’s true that Steven Spielberg already brought technology into the realm of Holocaust remembrance in the 1990s, when he began recording testimonies. But as technology continues advancing, and there’s a fear that attempts to draw in new audiences could result in kitsch (like the Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo exhibitions that are “packed” with technological gimmicks).

Many in the field believe that new media allows for active engagement, rather than passive viewing.Credit: Winikur Productions/Illinois Hol

The notion of a virtual reality Auschwitz is “tasteless at best, or reminiscent of the popular sci-fi series ‘Westworld’ at worst,” says Sara Lambert of the U.S. Holocaust Museum. With that, she does believe it is possible to present the history of the Holocaust “thoughtfully and carefully.” Dr. Kori Street, director of the USC Shoah Foundation, says she is hopeful about the potential for excellent apps to help teach about the Holocaust “without descending into morbid tourism.”

The rise of technology seems to indicate an approaching decline in the need to build brick-and-mortar Holocaust museums – many of which are ultimately designed as tasteless architectural showpieces. And that doesn’t take into account the many Holocaust monuments that go even further. While new, physical Holocaust museums are still being planned, the flood seems to be subsiding.

In the U.S., two major Holocaust museums are planned: One in Orlando and another Boston. In Montreal, an architecture contest has been announced for the design of a new Holocaust museum. In Europe, the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands, the first in the country, is currently under construction in Amsterdam. It will occupy two historic buildings in the city center that will be connected and renovated (with funding from the German government). One of the buildings was a theater from which tens of thousands of Jews were deported to the camps. The second building once housed a teachers’ seminary where hundreds of children were hidden and saved during the Holocaust.

An image from “The Journey Back: A VR Experience” at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Chicago.Credit: Winikur Productions/Illinois Hol

The new museums are being built at a time when “Holocaust imagery is more common than Holocaust knowledge,” and antisemitism is on the rise in both Europe and America. A recent survey in the United State found that two out of three millennials don’t know what a concentration camp is. Those involved in the projects also mention the war in Ukraine.

It appears that the museums’ content will focus on education about social justice and universal human rights, and not solely on Holocaust commemoration. The new immersive technologies are expected to make the material more accessible for younger audiences.

The new Holocaust museum in Orlando will be called the Holocaust Center for Hope and Humanism. It will be the first that does not focus on “exhibits, numbers and dates,” but rather on personal testimonies and interactive dialogue with the millennial generation and beyond.

In Boston, the new museum will be located on the symbolic Freedom Trail, and will commemorate Black History Month and Women’s History Month in addition to Holocaust Remembrance Day.

After endless debates on preservation and commemoration, it appears that the time has come for the next generation of Holocaust remembrance.

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