Arts & Design

How technology is helping preserve and commemorate WWII and Holocaust history

On the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, digital and virtual technology are engaging and educating new generations.

By Marisa Fox — September 2, 2020

A line drawing gave me the first tangible evidence of a past my late mother had kept secret. Nearly 20 years after her death in 1993, I learned she had been a Holocaust survivor, something she never spoke of during her lifetime. Uncovering her story led me to a survivor in Melbourne, Australia, and eventually, to a remote region in the Czech Republic with a printout of the sketch she gave me, depicting Gabersdorf, a women’s forced labor camp where they had been incarcerated. It now lay in ruins.

I felt compelled to salvage this history before there were no traces left, which propelled me on a global search for Gabersdorf survivors, which I'm documenting in my film, My Underground Mother, and to curate a monument honoring this overlooked women's Holocaust history, which I unveiled with survivors and the mayor of the town. I had planned to return this year to mark the 75th anniversary of liberation, but that trip became just one of the many commemorations cut short or cancelled by the global pandemic. 

With large gatherings currently out of the picture, most live Holocaust and World War II heritage trips, gatherings, and exhibits were cancelled or moved online for this momentous anniversary year, which is perhaps the last chance survivors would had to reunite in person. Fortunately, Holocaust and World War II educators, curators, and historical institutions have been at the vanguard of using technologies like searchable archives, virtual and augmented reality, and 3D printing to preserve and transmit history in ways that engage a new generation.  

Digital monuments

I learned of Gabersdorf, the dates of my mother’s incarceration, the name of the displaced persons camp where she resided after the war, and other personal documents that helped me unearth her past through the Arolsen Archives in Germany, formerly known as the International Tracing Service, the largest international collection of prisoner and camp records of the German National Socialists (the Nazi party). The collection, which has records about 17.5 million people, many of them stored on index cards like the one I found pertaining to my mother, was made available to the public in 2008 through researchers at institutions like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which have since helped Arolsen digitize 26 million documents. Last year, Arolsen released 13 million of those documents on their site, making it easier to trace a family member’s wartime whereabouts.

The archives recently launched “Every Name Counts,” an interactive way to honor the millions lost to Nazi persecution through crowdsourcing. When commemorations for concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen were canceled in April, Arolsen decided to post records from them with Zooniverse, an online platform that enables citizen and student volunteers to participate research projects. The goal is to engage a new generation already well-familiar with digital sleuthing by inviting them to help build the largest digital archive of Holocaust victims.  

 “My kids and students tend to think of ceremonies as passive,” says Floriane Azoulay, director of Arolsen Archives. “‘Every Name Counts’” allows students from all over the world to help us index the names and make them more accessible to the families searching for the fate of their loved ones.” She calls this “active remembrance,” and a silver lining to the cancellations. “Some 5,000 registered to participate, which enabled us to index one million names in the first eight weeks of the COVID lockdown,” says Azoulay. As of July, 27% of the archive had been transcribed.

Holocaust and World War II educators, curators, and historical institutions have been at the vanguard of technology to engage a new generation.

The archives’ main exhibit, “Stolen Memory,” was launched in 2016, showcasing the lives of individual prisoners through the personal items they brought to concentration camps that were confiscated by the Nazis. The goal is to reunite these objects — mostly wallets, watches, photos, notebooks, wedding rings, and necklaces found at Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Neuengamme, and other concentration camps and housed at Arolsen since the end of the war — with their rightful owners’ families. The interactive exhibit can now be experienced online, and a traveling exhibit is touring Germany in a shipping container where visitors use an AR app to view the stories. Arolsen seeks to return all 2,500 objects that it holds to the victims’ families with the help of volunteers, and so far has been able to place 400 items. 

Interactive testimony

Holocaust educators have been early adopters of technology that enables the history of this period — and the millions it touched — to live on after the last survivor has died.  Relying on AI and capture technology, they are transforming survivor testimonies into realistic, interactive experiences meant to engage future students of this history.

USC Shoah Foundation developed “Dimensions in Testimony,” with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (IHME) in Skokie, Illinois, to encourage students and visitors to engage with Holocaust testimony. It’s meant to simulate a live conversation by pairing an interactive, high-definition holographic exhibit with voice recognition technology that allows visitors to meet and ask questions of Holocaust surivivors who respond to prompts in real time. Thirteen survivors, who are part of the IHME community but come from countries around the world, were filmed by 50 cameras over several days, answering 2,000 questions that they anticipated would be asked by students and museum patrons.

The Shoah Foundation researched whether school groups interacted with the holograms in meaningful ways, and found that students felt less inhibited about asking questions because they knew they didn’t risk offending or hurting a survivor or being told their question was stupid. “It gets students involved in ways that exceed what we thought,” says Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith. “It puts the onus on them to ask the questions and explore it in various dimensions.” It is currently on display at six other museums around the world. 

Shoah Foundation also developed the 20-minute, immersive VR film The Last Goodbye. Viewers accompany survivor Pinchas Gutter on a 360-degree tour of Majdanek concentration camp in Poland as he walks through and shares memories of his imprisonment there.

Using tech to make an impact

Historians and curators walk a fine line when it comes to using technology to teach about human rights abuses like genocide, for fear that the bells and whistles distract from the life stories — and tragic deaths — of victims. Religion professor and US Holocaust Memorial Museum educator Liora Gubkin found in her 2015 paper, From Empathetic Understanding to Engaged Witnessing: Encountering Trauma in the Holocaust Classroom, that students either over-associated with Holocaust victims and ran the risk of assuming they knew what it meant to be in a camp, or on the other extreme, were intimated by the enormity of the experience, and beat themselves up for not being able to feel.

“We know empathy is an important teaching tool,” says Michael Haley Goldman, director of future projects at the museum, who leads a team utilizing emerging technologies to transform Holocaust education and exhibits. “But it doesn’t work the same way for Holocaust education as it does for other subjects.” 

It’s one reason why the Washington, DC,-based museum tapped the HP Reveal extended reality platform to prototype its “Tower of Faces” exhibit, a soaring mosaic of 1,500 portraits that focuses on individuals and their prewar lives, giving students an opportunity to relate to them as kids, not as victims.

“For that project we were trying to show how we could layer content into a physical space using phone-based augmented reality and tell a more complete story,” he says. The response was such a success, the museum is currently reviewing submissions to build a new version of it once the museum reopens.

Kathleen Hinkel (left) / Ron Gould (right)

Holocaust survivors Eva Schloss (left) and Aaron Elster (right) who participated in the "Dimensions in Testimony" interactive holographic exhibit by the Illinois Holocaust Museum and USC Shoah Foundation.

Other institutions have created interactive exhibits and are devoting further resources to new tech, while being mindful that the technology being used strikes the right tone. “If you’re asking to put someone in someone else’s shoes, we want to make sure it’s the right fit,” says Gemma Birnbaum, director of the WWII media and education center at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “We always ask what makes the most sense, what will the audience get out of it. 

Museum-goers can watch immersive experiences such as the 4D film Beyond All Boundaries where a panoramic screen and CGI animation takes viewers directly into the action and real human toll of the war in graphic detail.

The museum uses Z by HP mobile workstations and HP webcams for the production and broadcast of distance learning programs, which includes webinars and field trips for K-12 classrooms as well as for lifelong learning audiences. These “electronic field trips” typically take 14 months to produce, says Birnbaum, and feel almost like live documentaries. “We work closely with veterans, survivors and other institutions to bring these stories to life,” says Birnbaum. “It’s one thing to look at black and white footage and another to see it in full living color, engaging with witnesses.” They also have extensive distance learning programs and research starters for students.     

Celebrating the end of the war, digitally

If you’re still living under at least semi-quarantine —which I would venture is most of us—there are many other ways to engage with World War II history and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. The National World War II Museum had ambitious plans to mark the anniversary of the end of the war and its own 20th anniversary this September, but will instead livestream a digital ceremony on September 2 to celebrate the official end of WWII

The American Soldier in WWII Project offers access to 65,000 pages of uncensored, hand-written surveys completed by mostly “citizen soldiers” (without prior military training) about their experiences serving all around the world. The surveys, which were drafted to boost morale, were digitized and released online in time for the 75th anniversary of VE Day. American Soldier also features links to presentations on women’s roles, black soldiers and how crowdsourcing sites like Zooniverse and citizen archivists made these records accessible.

Ed Westcott / American Museum of Science and Energy

August 14, 1945: Residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, fill Jackson Square to celebrate the surrender of Japan. Oak Ridge was one of the three main sites of the Manhattan Project.

To honor the Japanese American citizens who were detained in internment camps in the US, one of darker chapters of American WWII history, you can watch the nine weeks of Tadaima!, A Community Virtual Pilgrimage to Manzanar National Historic Site, sponsored by the National Parks Service (NPS) and the Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages (JAMP) and which ran throughout the summer. Previously this was an in-person, group pilgrimage to various sites, COVID transformed it into a virtual gathering that was available to anyone at any time and features interviews with survivors and their descendents, as well as historians. 

You can also take a deep-dive into America’s response to the Holocaust through the digitized records of the War Refugee Board, part of the FDR Libary’s digital collections. 

Marisa Fox's mother, Tamar.

Courtesy of Marisa Fox

Marisa Fox's mother, Tamar.

The Zoom where it happened

While many of these high-tech and high-touch experiences enrich the teaching of Holocaust and WWII history, video conferencing has filled in a gap to allow survivors and their decendents to converge online, with a sense of intimacy that wouldn’t have been possible before the pandemic. Though I couldn’t travel, Zoom allowed me to participate in a moving reunion this spring between Gabersdorf survivors and their descendants from Melbourne to Manhattan, Haifa to Houston, Berlin to Toronto. 

On September 13, I am giving a virtual talk at the Ghetto Fighter’s House Museum in Israel, as part of their “Talking Memory” lecture series. These conversations feel genuine and personal in ways that can rarely be conjured at big ceremonies. And virtual gatherings have reinforced something I felt the first time I arrived at that barbwire fence with the printout in hand: History isn’t a static text or lesson, but a living adventure, waiting to be uncovered and experienced with those who lived it.

Marisa Fox is a journalist based in New York. Her in-production film is titled  My Underground Mother. Follow her story on Twitter and Facebook.              


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