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In this new exhibit, VR helps Holocaust survivors tell their stories

The Illinois Holocaust museum exhibit combines VR, historical images, drone footage, and the words of survivors to powerful effect.

In this new exhibit, VR helps Holocaust survivors tell their stories
[Photo: Emily Mohney]

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center has long focused on honoring the memory of people murdered during the Holocaust and preserving the stories of those who survived.

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Now a new pair of short virtual reality films will enable visitors to hear those stories while experiencing immersive visuals that help explain the survivors’ experiences. One film, entitled A Promise Kept, tells the story of the late Frieda “Fritzie” Fritzshall, who was imprisoned and enslaved at Auschwitz as a teenager, and went on to serve as president of the museum until her death last year at age 91. Other imprisoned women would give Fritzshall, the youngest of a group of 600, crumbs of food. The title comes from Fritzshall’s promise to them that if she survived, she would tell their stories. Her grandson Scott Fritzshall says that she was able to wrap up filming for the project before she died.

Fritzie Fritzshall at Auschwitz-Birkenau’s arrival ramp [Photo: courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum]
“I think she was very happy that she was able to complete this,” he says. “This really represented for her, kind of, the last that she had to give and really the culmination of her life’s work.”

The second film, Don’t Forget Me, commemorates the experience of survivor George Brent at the Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and Ebensee concentration camps. It takes its title from Brent’s father’s words to him at Auschwitz, before they were separated. Brent was later sent on to do brutal forced labor at the other two camps.

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“I always felt that it’s important that you shouldn’t forget—that you should remember,” says Brent, who is now 92 and retired from his dental practice. “Also, if you run into people who deny it [you] should be able to answer them and bring up facts that will show that this really happened—that 6 million Jews were killed.”

Slave labor tunnels at the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria are shown in the film Don’t Forget Me. [Image: courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum]
Both films, which are designed to be viewed through HTC Vive Pro VR headsets in scheduled screenings beginning January 27 at the Skokie museum, take viewers to train stations, concentration camps, and other sites involved in the horrors experienced by the two survivors and others imprisoned by the Nazi regime. The movies allow viewers to turn their heads to explore the various locations as the survivors narrate, getting a sense of the shape and scope of the sites in a way that would be difficult to convey with traditional video.

“Pretty much across the board, viewing audiences have been moved by this in ways that they couldn’t have expected,” says museum CEO Susan Abrams. “They feel like they are standing there having this intimate one-on-one experience with this incredible human being.”

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[Photo: Scott Edwards]
The team creating the video experiences wanted to make sure they would stand the test of time, says Chris Healer, founder of Eyelash, a design and production company that worked on the films.

“Our goal is to create a piece that people will continue to respond to for the next 10 years at least,” he says. The production process took more than two years and required complex techniques to stitch together footage of the survivors with drone and other camera footage of the Holocaust sites, as well as illustrations and historical photos. The videos, which will also be viewable on Google Cardboard and other simple VR headsets for off-site exhibitions at schools and other locations, have so far elicited comments only about the stories they’re telling, not any technical aspects, which Healer sees as a sign of success.

“As we show it to people, they’re simply into the story, and that’s huge,” he says.

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[Photo: Emily Mohney]
For the museum, the VR technology enables the survivors’ stories to be shared with today’s visitors and generations yet to be born. As Abrams notes, “I feel like this is a gift from Fritzie and George to humanity.”

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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