How VR and presence are reinventing Holocaust remembrance

[This story from Haaretz discusses design decisions and the power and ethics of presence experiences across media in the most serious of contexts. The original version includes more images and a 0:51 minute video. –Matthew]

How Virtual Reality Is Reinventing Holocaust Remembrance

In ‘The Last Goodbye’ at the Tribeca Virtual Arcade this month, the viewer wears a virtual-reality headset as a survivor recounts his ordeal at Majdanek. It’s an experience more authentic than ‘Shoah,’ its producer says

Neta Alexander (New York) Apr 24, 2017

NEW YORK − When asked a question, Pinchas Gutter doesn’t simply provide an answer − the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor tells a story.

In an interview Saturday during a lunch in his honor at the Tribeca Film Festival, Gutter recalled how he barely survived five concentration camps and a death march from Germany to Czechoslovakia. In the early ‘50s, the Jewish orphan who lost his family at Majdanek decided to volunteer for the Israeli army. He later moved to Jerusalem and found himself working in construction. The project he was helping build was the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum.

While Yad Vashem − with its vast archive, outdoor sculptures and memorial sites such as the Children’s Memorial and Hall of Remembrance − set the standard for remembrance centers around the world, two new initiatives featuring Gutter can teach us something about the future of Holocaust education and preservation.

The first is “New Dimensions in Testimony,” which premiered last year at the international documentary festival in Sheffield, England. It featured a 3-D responsive hologram of Gutter − letting audiences ask questions and receive answers based on his prerecorded memories. The second initiative, which can be seen at the Tribeca Virtual Arcade until April 29, is “The Last Goodbye” − the first-ever immersive recreation of a concentration camp, shot at Majdanek last summer.

Gutter, who carefully leads the viewer of “The Last Goodbye” through Majdanek while recounting his tale of survival and loss, is a remarkable storyteller. In a moment of self-reflection he states with a smile, “I guess that’s why they chose me as their guinea pig.” “They” refers to the team behind this virtual-reality work, which was directed by Gabo Arora and Ari Palitz and produced by Stephen Smith in association with the University of Southern California and the USC Shoah Foundation.

While Gutter and 11 other survivors in “New Dimensions” were transformed into responsive holograms, his participation in “The Last Goodbye” takes memorialization and technology one step further. Upon entering a white exhibition space at Tribeca’s Spring Studios on Varick Street, you’re asked to take off your shoes and put on a VR headset covering your eyes and ears. You then meet Gutter in an unlikely place: a hotel bathroom in which the octogenarian shaves in front of a small mirror. You’re barefoot while Gutter is wearing a white bathrobe. Using a voice-over, Gutter confesses that he’s extremely anxious about going back to Majdanek for what he describes as “my very last visit to the camp.”

Feeling the barbed wire

This short prologue, in which Gutter talks about his nightmares since the war, prepares us for a 15-minute tour through Majdanek: the crowded hall where Jews were forced to share filthy bunk beds, the massive communal showers, the gas chamber where Gutter’s parents were murdered, and the crematorium where the body of his twin sister Sabina was burned to ashes.

It’s eerie and disturbing; the 360-degree photoreal experience provides an illusion of being there. The different sites look − and feel − so real you’re tempted to touch the barbed wire or walk into the gas chamber.

“We ask you to take your shoes off in order to create a reflective environment that isolates you from the noise of the festival,” says Palitz, the co-creator and director. “Once you go into our exhibition space, no one else can see you. This was intentionally designed as a sanctuary, because the idea is to invite you to an emotional and spiritual experience.”

Another word that comes to mind is “intimacy” − Gutter is talking directly to you and you’re the only two people occupying these ghostly spaces.

“Some people only listen to him and don’t move or explore the different spaces, while others look around,” Palitz says. “We wanted to create an intimate connection between the user and Pinchas and between the user and the camp, so they can understand that what happened to him was real, and this place exists.”

While the idea of “Holocaust VR” raises ethical concerns – among them that the genocide will be turned into a game-like experience – “The Last Goodbye” is actually the latest immersive work focusing on historical and personal traumas. On the same floor in Tribeca one can find “Testimony,” which uses VR to explore the stories of sexual-abuse survivors, and “Broken Night,” a fictional work about a woman attacked in her home by an intruder.

Other interactive works include Nonny de la Peña’s “Project Syria,” which recreates a rocket attack in Aleppo, or the much-anticipated “Anne,” which will take viewers to the secret Amsterdam annex that hid Anne Frank and others from the Nazis during World War II.

Gutter says algorithmic-based holograms or virtual reality are better ways to share his story. “The first film I watched about the Holocaust was ‘Schindler’s List,’ which I thought was excellent. I saw other Holocaust films that moved me, but then − a couple of days later − they flew out of my head,” he recalls.

“Yet people who have heard my story personally, whether because they went to Poland with me, interact with my hologram or saw ‘The Last Goodbye,’ tell me they will always remember me and this encounter changed them.”

Gutter says he likes the decision to open the film in a cramped hotel room.

“I loved it, because it shows that I’m an ordinary human being. I get up, shave and get coffee. The next thing, you travel with me to the place where I lost my entire family. By going from the hotel to the camp, you know that I’m not a figment of someone’s imagination. I’m not a fictional character.”

Addressing the controversy

Meanwhile, the decision to take the viewer into the crematorium and gas chamber wasn’t easy. According to producer Smith, who was also the creative mind behind “New Dimensions,” “We all knew that we would have to make a difficult choice, and that we would have to make them with Pinchas himself. When he’s talking about the gas chamber, he stands away from its entrance and doesn’t want to approach it. The solution was to show a room scale of the gas chamber without enabling the viewer to enter the space and walk in and out of it. You can look at it from outside, not inside.”

So were the creators or Smith afraid that some critics might argue that recreating Majdanek in VR was blasphemous?

“I understand where this concern is coming from. It will be very easy to ‘gamify’ the Holocaust or to digitize and manipulate it,” Smith says. “One of the things we think a lot about is authenticity. It’s not authentic to film someone talking about his or her life on a television screen. So the entire representational field of video testimonies … runs exactly the same risk. We are all creating versions of the Holocaust by using different creative tools to tell these stories.”

One might argue, however, that there is a difference between watching 10 hours of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and going through a 16-minute experience that takes you into a gas chamber in Majdanek.

“I completely disagree. ‘Shoah’ is artistry gone crazy,” Smith says. “It is not authentic. It is forcing you into a situation where you watch scenes of former places that don’t actually have anything on-site today that represent the Holocaust while listening to a narrative that has been pieced together from hundreds of hours of careful editing.”

Smith says “Shoah” is the creation of an artist in exactly the same way “The Last Goodbye” is.

“How are you going to be true to the subject that you are representing? We all run that risk whenever we pick up a camera or a pen. We’re all in the same business of representing the Holocaust,” Smith says.

“The way we think about using technology is to support the testimony itself; it should not be the main thing. It is used to support a deeper understanding of the narrative and story in the most authentic way we can. We need to embrace it rather than to fear it, and to do it with great care.”

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