OPINION: New vision of hell is a triumph for Holocaust educators

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OPINION: New vision of hell is a triumph for Holocaust educators

Jewish News' Michelle Rosenberg visited Auschwitz-Birkenau thanks to a new virtual reality documentary.

Credit: Triumph of the Spirit/Reuters
Credit: Triumph of the Spirit/Reuters

I experienced Auschwitz for the first time, from the comfort of a Marble Arch Hotel, wearing a virtual reality headset.

Feeling I had to physically protect myself, my arms were folded tightly, my hands burrowed into my sleeves. It seems fitting that the headsets take some physical effort to be removed.

It means you would literally have to tear your gaze away.  And there were moments where I was tempted to do so.

Triumph of the Spirit begins with an historical overview of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust. The sights and sounds of the past are presented by professional Holocaust researcher, Rabbi Israel Goldwasser. The impression of the vibrancy of the community that would be largely exterminated by Nazis is profoundly clear.

Aerial footage, Poland; Pic: Triumph of the Spirit

And then; drone, aerial footage of Auschwitz. The gates. The train tracks. An authentic red cattle car that would have been packed with hundreds of Jews, carrying their small cases of personal belongings, unknowingly en route to their murder.

I knew what was coming.

And as the film presented the stark, cold bunks and barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I froze, literally pushing myself back into my chair, trying to distance myself.

The remains of the crematorium. The steps that members of my family, and yours, were ordered to walk down for ‘disinfection’. I shook my head when we moved inside a gas chamber.

The camera narrowed, the room got smaller. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t get out.

Holocaust Survivor, Manfred Goldberg. Credit: JVR360

After 50 minutes, the great, bitter-sweet irony of being able to remove the headset. To step away. And breathe. At last, it had stopped.

The room was absolutely silent. Guests rubbed their eyes. Some looked dazed. Others left the room. I sat and I cried. On a table with people I had never met.

Powerful; evocative; visceral. Those images will be seared into my brain for the rest of my life. And that is, perhaps, the point. That we don’t look away.

That we must never look away. That we must remember.

Credit: Triumph of the Spirit/Reuters

Leaving the room, I bumped into Rebbetzen Joanne Dove. We hadn’t seen each other for years, but she gave me a hug. And she didn’t let go. It was a wordless exchange between two Jews with the tacit acknowledgement that the Holocaust binds us all.

Find out more about Triumph of the Spirit here.

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