Skokie museum uses tech to preserve Holocaust stories
By Don Babwin
SKOKIE — Fritzie Fritzshall knows she is running out of time.
She knows the day will come when she won’t be here to describe being herded onto a boxcar, hearing the cries that turned to whimpers that turned to the silence that signaled another death. And she won’t be able to tell of the doors opening to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where an old prisoner, as he unloaded the dead, whispered to her in Yiddish to lie to the guards about her age. That lie kept her out of a line to the gas chambers.
Preserving her story is why she’s on stage, or at least a three-dimensional likeness of her is on stage, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, just outside Chicago.
Fritzshall is one of 13 Holocaust survivors who tell their stories through holographic images that invite the audience to ask questions, creating what feels like a live conversation.
The interactive display is the latest version of an exhibit that’s been shown at a handful of sites including New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But those exhibits were two-dimensional, with survivors appearing as they would on a movie or television screen. The exhibit in Skokie marks the first time that the voice-recognition technology powering conversations with audiences has been married to 3-D holographic technology to tell survivors’ stories.
“We are the first in the world to have this and show it like this,” said museum CEO Susan Abrams. “We will be working with the Shoah Foundation to license this globally so that it can be seen by as many people as possible.”
The holographic theater is part of the Skokie museum’s new Take a Stand Center. It’s the result of a three-year, $5 million project using New Dimensions Testimony technology developed by the Shoah Foundation. The foundation, based at the University of Southern California, grew out of an effort by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg to preserve as many survivors’ stories as possible.
For her part, Fritzshall spent a week in Los Angeles in a studio, one of three in the world like it, surrounded by a 3-D camera system. She answered some 2,000 questions about a life that was shattered one night in Czechoslovakia when German soldiers pounded on the door and told her family at gunpoint they had 15 minutes to pack and leave.
On stage, Fritzshall’s holographic image nods, tilts her head and appears to listen as someone in the auditorium asks a question. Stumping her is next to impossible, thanks to technology that turned her responses to those 2,000 questions into 30,000 answers, Abrams said. Fritzshall not only provided horrific details about her two years in Auschwitz, but if a child asks about her favorite color or food, the hologram can answer those too. She has even sung a song.
But mostly, what audiences see is a woman going back in time.
“When I am sitting in that chair I am back on the train, I am afraid,” Fritzshall said in an interview. “I see the women holding infants, dead infants … I’m watching the entire scene at Auschwitz. I’m watching my brothers leave me, I’m hungry and cold and I see the trains coming in day in and day out.”
In the exhibit, she describes being herded into a Jewish ghetto and from behind a fence, seeing neighbors she thought were her friends ridiculing her. To this day she does not understand how people who were friends one day could turn on her family the next. She recalls arriving at Auschwitz with two younger brothers who disappeared forever. She speaks of the confusion of the “separation,” where prisoners were ordered into this line and that line, and the moment she told her mother she was in the wrong line, not knowing she was sending her mother to her death.
“I didn’t know,” she whispers in the auditorium, a tiny echo of what her holographic image is saying on stage, both of them sounding like the 13-year-old girl she was on that day more than 70 years ago.
“I have carried this for all this many years the guilt of my mother, that maybe she would have lived had I not sent her into that line,” she says after leaving the auditorium.
At Auschwitz, she says, women who were slowly starving to death pressed a tiny piece of the sliver of bread they received each day into her hand, in exchange for a promise that if she lived, she would tell others what had happened.
“I am leaving this behind for people five years from now, 10 years from now, 50 years from now … so that the world can remember what happened to us, so it cannot ever happen to anyone else,” she said.
She and others at the museum say preserving these stories is especially important in the current U.S. political climate, when emboldened hate groups are taking to the streets wearing swastikas and shouting Nazi slogans, as they did in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
“Charlottesville totally brought that fear back into me,” said Fritzshall. “I see that and I think what happened to me can happen to your children, your grandchildren if I don’t speak out.”
If You Go…
Take a Stand Center: Illinois Holocaust Museum, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie. ilholocaustmuseum.org/tas/ or 847-967-4800. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays until 8 p.m. Adults, $12; seniors and students $8; children 5-11, $6. Separate free tickets required for survivor hologram exhibit in Take a Stand theater.