Illinois Holocaust Museum Preserves Survivors' Stories — As Holograms Hearing firsthand accounts from survivors has been key for Holocaust education. The first-of-its-kind exhibit features holograms of 13 survivors who answered 2,000 questions about their experiences.

Illinois Holocaust Museum Preserves Survivors' Stories — As Holograms

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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.

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