High tech horror: Virtual reality guide to Auschwitz launched

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High tech horror: Virtual reality guide to Auschwitz launched

Michelle Rosenberg experiences a pioneering attempt to bring the Shoah to future generations through the latest technology.

VR audience, Montcalm Hotel, London. Credit: JVR360
VR audience, Montcalm Hotel, London. Credit: JVR360

A virtual reality tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau has premiered in the UK.

Triumph of the Spirit provides an immersive 50-minute, 360 degree virtual reality experience of the infamous death camp, narrated by Holocaust expert Rabbi Yisrael Goldwasser, who tells viewers: “You’re not a tourist. You’re a mourner.”

Credit: JVR360

The film features drone footage and survivor testimony.  It was created by three Charedi women film-makers to meet the challenge of teaching the history of the Shoah to younger generations using new technology.

Director and co-creator Miriam Cohen addressed an audience at the Montcalm Hotel in Marble Arch, with guests including Israel ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, Laurence Winton, grandson of Kindertransport hero Sir Nicholas Winton, and survivors Manfred Goldberg and Jacques Weisser.

Jacques Weisser, Miriam Cohen, Chani Kopolowitz, credit: JVR360

Cohen, from Bnei Brak in Israel, recalled how at the age of 17 she was unable to join a school trip to Poland for religious reasons.

Her friends returned having had a “powerful experience”. Feeling she had “missed something so strong”, she promised she would one day make the journey.

Working out of their production studios, she and her creative partners, Chani Koplowitz and Yuti Neiman, decided to use VR technologies to enable those who cannot, or would not visit Poland, see it for themselves.

Credit: JVR360

It took intense negotiations to obtain permission to take a crew into Auschwitz.

Cohen recalls being told “the same thing” by Yad Vashem and the Israeli embassy in Poland: “Why do you think they are going to open it for you? Who are you? Steven Spielberg didn’t get permission when he did Schindler’s List”.

Eventually, with the support of the director and board of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the documentary was filmed over three days during the Covid pandemic.

Met at the gates of the camp by a security guard who let them in before closing the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau behind them, Cohen said: “We found ourselves, three mummies, to so many children, alone in this terrible place. It was so difficult. So emotional and it was a moment I will never forget in my entire life.”

Credit: Triumph of the Spirit/Reuters

She told Jewish News that the virtual reality tech “tells the story of the Holocaust in a way that youth can relate to. The Holocaust is not a remote moment of memory, something that you study by books, photos and museum display, but something that you are able to experience by using the tech. It’s a breakthrough in educating youngsters about the Holocaust.”

Matthew Sanders, Education and VR Lead, Global Affairs, META together with Gidon Katz of IMP Group Ltd. Credit: Triumph of the Spirit

Laurence Watson, grandson of Sir Nicholas Winton, the British hero who rescued 669 Czech children from the Nazis, commended the “amazing work” of the filmmakers and said: “This is an experience that everyone must have. I’ve never been to Auschwitz and I certainly found myself transported there. It’s difficult to comprehend but easier through this and certainly moving.”

Jacques Weisser, trustee, Yad Vashem UK, also commended everyone who put “this amazing virtual reality” film together. He said: “Our father always said, ‘Education, education, education’. It’s the only way forward.”

Gas chamber footage from Auschwitz-Birkenau, from Triumph of the Spirit.

Holocaust survivor Manfred Goldberg told the audience the film was a “brilliant representation. Absolutely brilliant. Giving it a five star rating is insufficient. It is unimaginably powerful and should be seen by millions of non Jewish people. Anyone who sees that film will not turn into a Jew hater or become a Holocaust denier.”

Matthew Sanders, Education and VR Lead, Global Affairs, META praised the film’s technology, the women behind it and the role that VR can play in education.

Miriam Cohen and Holocaust Survivor Manfred Goldberg. Credit: Triumph of the Spirit

Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, told Jewish News: “Triumph of the Spirit showed amazing technology. It’s an interesting idea for a way to continue telling the history for a time when we no longer have survivors.”

Click here to read Michelle Rosenberg’s firsthand account of the VR tour of Auschwitz.

Triumph of the Spirit – find out more here.

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