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Survivors live on in perpetuity, thanks to cutting-edge technology

What happens when those who personally experienced “Never again”—the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors—are no longer here to share their stories?

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Six of the seven Chicago-area survivors who participated in the Survivor Stories Experience (from left): Samuel Harris, Fritzie Fritzshall, Israel Starck, Aaron Elster, Janine Oberrotman and Matus Stolov.

"Never again," we tell our children and grandchildren, students, and other younger generations, in relation to the Shoah -the Holocaust.

But what happens when those who personally experienced "Never again"-the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors-are no longer here to share their stories? Countless books, articles, and films, of course, will be available to teach the critical moral lessons that come out of one of the darkest times in human history. And the extensive audio and video collection at the USC Shoah Foundation-which holds the largest archive of first-person survivor testimonies-ensures that accounts of the Holocaust will live on in perpetuity.

But survivors themselves will not. It is only a matter of time before their in-person narratives of courage and resilience, which they have brought to classrooms, high school auditoriums, and stages across the world, will be but a flicker of a memory.

It is this inevitability that has moved Holocaust historians and educators to consider how in, say 2050, a middle school student learning about the Shoah for the first time will be able to access the power and immediacy of survivor testimony. An innovative result of their thinking will be on permanent display come October, when the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie launches its Take a Stand Center.

The new center, funded as part of the museum's ongoing $30 million capital campaign, will take students and other audiences through a 90-minute journey whose aim is to move them beyond a depth of knowledge of the Shoah to action to prevent future atrocities. Vital to this objective is an "upstander" gallery, which provides examples of individual acts of heroism in the face of condemnation and mortal danger. Accounts of those who stood up and had the moral courage to say "no" to anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, economic injustice, and other forms of discrimination and persecution are featured. They include the famous and not-so-famous. "We didn't want people to feel that they need to be a Nobel Prize winner to be an upstander," said Susan Abrams, who, as chief executive officer, has led the museum since April 2014.

Learning about those who have resisted the Nazis, the KKK, and other bigots, bullies, and haters, and taking the initiative to speak out against injustice are two entirely different matters, said Abrams. That is why the Take a Stand Center includes a lab that proposes museumgoers ways they can make a positive difference in their communities-whether by contacting their legislators on a particular concern, writing a letter to the editor of their local paper, or raising funds and awareness about an issue important to them.

But what Abrams calls the "pièce de résistance" of the Take a Stand Center is the museum's novel partnership with the USC Shoah Foundation: the Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience and the accompanying 60-seat holographic theater, where young people can listen to a five- to eight-minute high-definition video of one of seven Chicago-area Holocaust survivors.

Following the screening, audience members, with the aid of sophisticated voice-recognition technology, can ask the survivor featured on the screen before them additional questions about their experiences before, during and after World War II: Did your family see the Holocaust coming? How many members of your family survived? What was it like to return to your hometown in Poland after surviving Auschwitz? How and when did you get to the United States? Do you have bad dreams?

While these are just a handful of questions, the survivors are capable of responding to approximately 10,000 queries, noted Abrams. This is possible, explained Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, because the seven Chicago survivors-along with six additional survivors from across the country-were flown to the foundation's Los Angeles headquarters for a week's worth of studio interviews conducted by foundation professionals.

The short video profiles that were produced by the Illinois Holocaust Museum are an outgrowth of these 18-to 20-hour interviews, which were far more sweeping in scope than the tens of thousands of original survivor testimonies that the foundation has collected over the past several decades. On average, those testimonies are two-to two and-a-half hours in length.

"Serendipitous" is how Smith characterizes this collaboration between the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the USC Shoah Foundation. He and museum board member Jim Goodman were seated together at a professional event when discussion turned to the use of holographic technology in communicating survivor stories. "We didn't have a specific museum in mind," said Smith, when he mentioned the possibility of beta testing the concept with a partner.

But Goodman did. He followed up immediately with Abrams, who had recently joined the museum, and she ran with the idea. The seven Chicago-area Holocaust survivors who participated in the Survivor Stories Experience-Aaron Elster, Fritzie Fritzshall, Samuel Harris, Janine Oberrotman, Adina Sella, Israel Starck, and Matus Stolov-have been involved in Holocaust education for many years, as members of the museum's Speakers' Bureau, as board members, and in other capacities. They were selected, said Abrams, based on the variety of ordeals they experienced during World War II. Some survived camps, while others were in hiding and had assumed false identities.

Elster, of Lincolnshire, who is now in his mid-80s, was concealed for almost two years in the attic of a Polish couple his parents had known professionally. During this time, he recounts in his video, he was forced to remain completely silent-except during a downpour, when sheets of rain hitting the roof would deafen his crying and screaming and all other sounds of despair and fright he had bottled up. At the end of the war, when he emerged from hiding, he was covered with lice. He and his older sister, who had been hidden in another part of the Polish couple's house, learned that their parents, younger sister, and almost all of Jews in their town had perished.

"There were only 23 survivors out of 6,000 Jews in the town," said Elster, the first vice president of the museum's Board of Directors, during a recent interview. For many years, he said, he, like many other survivors, did not want to talk about the Holocaust. Dredging up memories was too painful and traumatic. But now, he observed, "most of us are old…In a very short time, grass will be growing on top of us."

Elster said that he answered approximately 2,000 questions during his interview sessions at the USC Shoah Foundation. "I enjoyed the whole process," he said. Foundation officials "couldn't do enough for us."

The continued recognition that survivors receive for sharing their stories and the holographic technology that will, in effect, immortalize those who participated in the project have led to a number of significant gifts to the museum, including one from the Abe & Ida Cooper Foundation, after whom the Survivor Stories Experience is named. "As soon as we heard about this, it became obvious to us that it was the perfect" platform for Holocaust education, said Arthur Callistein, the Cooper Foundation's president.

"Hatred, bullying and discrimination continue because some people need scapegoats," added Cooper Foundation director Fern Callistein. "This will counteract it."

Smith said that since the USC Shoah Foundation embarked on this initiative with the Illinois Holocaust Museum, he has been approached by a number of other Holocaust museums in the United States, including those in Cleveland and Houston, that would like to develop similar programs with holographic technology. He and Abrams said the foundation and museum have entered into a joint licensing agreement that will allow them to share the tools they have developed with other institutions. 

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