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Illinois Holocaust Museum Preserves Survivors' Stories — As Holograms

Dec 19, 2017
Originally published on December 22, 2017 8:32 am

Holocaust survivor Sam Harris has told the story of how he survived the Holocaust hundreds of times.

He's talked about his experience in the Nazis' concentration camps with school groups and in videos for oral history archives. He even wrote a children's book.

But when he sat down to tell his story in Los Angeles a couple months ago, it was different.

In a Hollywood studio, surrounded by green screens, Harris answered questions for five or six hours a day. By the time it was all done, he'd answered nearly 2,000.

Sam Harris was getting made into a hologram.

"Oh my gosh, it's like being on the moon," Harris said. "I just looked at it and said, is that me?"

Creating Empathy

For decades, hearing firsthand accounts from survivors has been an integral part of learning about the Holocaust.

Every year, fewer survivors are alive to tell their stories, so the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is turning to holograms. It's part of their new exhibit called "Take a Stand."

"Nothing replaces the testimony of a survivor who is in front of an audience. It really creates this empathy that we don't see any other way," says Shoshanna Buchholz-Miller, the museum's vice president of education and exhibitions. "And we are so blessed that we have that opportunity now, but we're not going to have that opportunity forever."

Harris is one of 13 Holocaust survivors who will live on as holograms at the museum. Their stories reflect a range of experiences during the Holocaust — Harris was just 4 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and rode out the war hiding in two concentration camps, Deblin and Czestochowa. His parents were killed, leaving him orphaned when the war ended in 1945. When he arrived in the United States, he was 12 years old.

'You do it for a purpose'

When visitors enter the exhibit space, Harris appears on a stage in a room set up like a theater. He sits in a red chair, wearing a blue shirt and khakis. Visitors are free to ask him whatever they want.

What was life like before the war?

What was your first memory of arriving at Deblin?

Who in your family survived?

"When I sit on that stage and the real life comes out and you see me as a person, you cannot deny that what I am saying is the truth," he says.

For Harris, that made the hours he spent answering questions in Hollywood worth it — even though the process was often incredibly difficult.

"To answer a question, I always put myself in the position to where the answer was — like watching somebody being hanged," he says. "I'm really there watching it and I see it and I describe it. It's painful, and you begin to resent it. But what saves you is you do it for a purpose. You do it so 50 years from now, 100 years from now, people can look you in the face, ask you a question, and by god I give the answer."

Update at 5:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 20:

We should also note that the technology used in this exhibit, called New Dimensions in Testimony, was developed by the USC Shoah Foundation.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is the first to permanently exhibit these survivor testimonies.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For decades, Holocaust survivors have told their stories to students and museum visitors in person and in videos. The Holocaust ended more than 70 years ago, and so every year, fewer survivors are alive to tell their stories. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center has come up with a creative way to address this challenge.

SAM HARRIS: Hello, my name is Sam Harris, and I'll be happy to answer your questions.

SHAPIRO: That's Holocaust survivor Sam Harris speaking with visitors at the museum. Actually, it's his hologram. He appears on a stage in a room set up like a theater. He sits in a red chair, wearing a blue shirt and khakis. Visitors can ask him whatever questions they want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sam, can you talk about the beginning of when you had to leave? You were forced to leave your home the beginning of the war.

HARRIS: The earliest that I remember the war coming to Deblin is we when sat around the table, eating. And I heard noises outside. And we ran outside, and there I saw airplanes flying and chasing these Polish airplanes. And I knew something was up. The Nazis were shooting down the Polish planes.

SHAPIRO: I spoke with Sam and the exhibit's curator, Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, about this project. I started by asking Sam what it's like to be a hologram.

HARRIS: Oh, my gosh. It's like being on the moon. It's brand new. I looked at it. Is that me? Is that the answer I gave?

SHAPIRO: To become a hologram, he and other Holocaust survivors each sat for hours in a Hollywood studio and answered nearly 2,000 questions about their experiences. He told me that process was often very painful.

HARRIS: They gave us a rest each hour. I had a T-shirt. And I had to change my T-shirt. It was always wet. You see, to answer a question, I always put myself in the position to where the answer was like watching somebody being hanged. And I'm really there watching it. And I see it. And I describe it. This goes on for five, six hours a day. And a lot of the questions are very intrusive.

I talk about my parents being killed and the crematorium, people being shot. You know, I was just a child, so when Hitler came to my town in Deblin, Poland, which the war zone, I was 4 years old. It's painful. And you begin to resent it. But then what saves you is you do it for a purpose. You do it so that 50 years from now, a hundred years from now, people can look you in the face, ask a question. And by gosh, I give the answer.

SHAPIRO: Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, how does Sam Harris' experience fit into the larger project that you're doing here?

SHOSHANA BUCHHOLZ-MILLER: Well, it's a really important story that we tell. We're lucky in that the museum and the new exhibit that we have, we have seven survivors from the Chicagoland area that tell their stories and answer questions. And then we use this incredible technology that allows visitors to ask a question of the recording, and the recording answers them. Sam has an amazing story about hiding in a concentration camp and being able to survive by being taken care of by his older sister. But we have other recordings that kind of give the breadth of different survivor experiences. So it's an incredible archive.

SHAPIRO: Holocaust education centers have had videos of survivors telling their stories for a long time. What do you think the benefit is from having this sort of interactive hologram?

BUCHHOLZ-MILLER: I think it is really a game changer for us. I mean, while videos are so important and an incredible testimony, nothing replaces the testimony of a survivor who's in front of an audience and the audience can ask them questions. It really creates this empathy that we don't see any other way. And we are so blessed that we have that opportunity right now. But we're not going to have that opportunity forever, and so this technology allows us to ask questions of a survivor and create that connection in a way that we couldn't otherwise.

HARRIS: Shoshana, if I can jump in just for a second, I'll tell you what I see in this. You know, Spielberg spent a lot of money recording 52,000 survivors. But you know, there is something when I sit on that stage and the real life comes out and you see me as a person. You cannot deny that what I am saying is the truth.

BUCHHOLZ-MILLER: What has been amazing to me is that we've had students and general public come in. They watch an introductory film where they learn about the survivor's life, and then the survivor appears on stage. And there's usually an audible gasp when the survivor - the hologram appears. And then the first person asks a question, and the recording answers. And everyone seems to relax a little. And they're asking the questions. What did you feel like? What happened to your family? And I think the use of the word you is so important because they really think they're talking to this person. And the technology falls away, and it's about the story. And that's really what we want.

SHAPIRO: Sam, what do you think about the fact that people are going to be having conversations with you years after you've left this Earth?

HARRIS: You know, I've always felt the responsibility as a young child that maybe I was a witness, and I better share the story. I feel lucky to be picked to be that witness for the benefit of many of the survivors and those who died. And I really feel - I feel very good about that, Ari.

SHAPIRO: That's Holocaust survivor Sam Harris and Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, vice president of education and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.