'The Journey Back'

Museum exhibit immerses visitors through groundbreaking virtual reality experience

VirtualReality image
In "Don’t Forget Me," patrons visit the men’s barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau with survivor George Brent.

In a worldwide first for Holocaust education, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center's new exhibit called The Journey Back immerses museum visitors in a transformative Holocaust remembrance experience that goes beyond seeing and hearing historical stories on screen and through speakers.

The exhibit employs virtual reality technology to engage visitors through films narrated by Holocaust survivors. The Journey Back utilizes 360-degree sound and video of contemporary and historic Auschwitz--and memory sequences from survivors--to evoke empathy and inspire visitors to act.  

"This is a game changer," said Susan Abrams, CEO of the museum. "We need to learn all we can from Holocaust survivors while they are still here. The knowledge we gain from their pasts influences our futures and informs the way we interact with the world."

Having recently experienced this unique exhibit, I concur with Abrams; I've never felt so immersed in another world as I did in a preview of this fresh, innovative VR experience. 

The museum has long been at the forefront of using emerging technology. In 2017, it became the world's first museum to use holograms of actual Holocaust survivors to recount their stories and answer visitors' questions, in the museum's Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience.  

Now, the museum is once again employing groundbreaking technology to make Holocaust stories memorable and relevant to a new generation.  Visitors to TheJourney Back  are in for an immersive experience, donning goggles and headphones to enter a virtual world where they're guided by a Holocaust survivor sharing their memories and feelings.

Two film experiences, both award winners on the film festival circuit, currently make up the exhibit:

A Promised Kept  follows the story of Holocaust survivor Fritzie Fritzshall, a former president of the museum board, who died in 2020.  "Life for me growing up was beautiful," Fritzshall explains at the beginning of the VR experience, and it's easy to "see" why: through the VR goggles, one glimpses the bucolic town of Klucharky, Czechoslovakia, where Fritzshall grew up. 

But everything changed in 1944, she said, when she and her family were deported to Auschwitz.  One minute I was seemingly standing with Fritzshall next to the train tracks; the next minute my VR world shifted, and I was in a cattle car with the door clanging shut. The exhibit then changed to a dream-like sequence, with drawings illustrating the horrific memories that Fritzshall describes.  

She worked as a slave laborer in a Nazi factory along with 599 other women.  I "visited" the present-day site alongside Fritzshall, and then experienced another ethereal sequence with drawings illustrating her memories.  She was the youngest laborer, and her fellow workers requested that if she lived, she would bear witness to the horrors they were enduring.  Each day, the women in the factory would give Fritzshall a crumb of bread from their meager rations.  With the help of this extra nourishment--the size of a marble--she survived.  A Promise Kept  fulfills her vow made to those women to ensure that future generations learn about the Holocaust.

Don't Forget Me  takes visitors on another virtual trip with George Brent, a Holocaust survivor and a retired dentist.  Imprisoned in Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and Ebensee concentration camps, Brent recounts the moment he and his family arrived in Auschwitz.  Separated from his mother and siblings, he asked another inmate where they'd been taken: the inmate pointed to the giant chimneys belching smoke out into the air. 

As I "followed" Brent on his virtual-reality tour through Austria, Poland, and Ukraine, he explains his father's anguished words to him at Auschwitz: "Don't forget me."  

With the number of Holocaust survivors fast dwindling, Don't Forget Me  offers a unique way to take museumgoers on VR tours of concentration camps and "introduce" them to survivors.  It's a powerful experience that lingers long in the memory.

"There is truly no better way to learn," Abrams said, "than to virtually tour the Holocaust sites today with a survivor to see them from their point of view." 

The Journey Back , which opened in January on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a permanent exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education.The two films A Promise Kept and Don't Forget Me alternate monthly.

For more information, visit ilholocaustmuseum.org .
Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D. lives with her family in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

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