The seventh-graders from St. Paul of the Cross School in Park Ridge file into the theater, packing every inch of it.
As the house lights go down, a hush falls over the room, and the students watch a haunting, seven-minute documentary about Holocaust survivor Fritzie Fritzshall, who lives in the Chicago area. She tells of her family’s arrest at gunpoint; the deprivations and degradations of imprisonment in a Jewish ghetto in Czechoslovakia; the horrors of a hellish boxcar journey to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp; and the unlikely miracle of her survival.
Then the lights come up a bit, and, all at once, Fritzshall materializes onstage, as if from the ether.
“I have so much more to tell you,” she says to the crowd. “So please ask me questions.”
Many hands shoot into the air, but Fritzshall isn’t really there. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that a luminescent, three-dimensional likeness of her has begun speaking with the audience. She appears to listen attentively, nods her head in recognition of the inquiries, smiles occasionally, sometimes sounds close to tears and always responds with warmth in her voice and tenderness on her face.
Welcome to the future of the preservation of memory, which is playing out for the first time anywhere in the world at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, in Skokie. Starting on Oct. 29, visitors will be able to ask questions of Fritzshall and 12 other Holocaust survivors — seven of them from Chicago and environs — as part of the museum’s $5 million, three-years-in-the-making Take a Stand Center.
At its heart is the Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience, a 66-seat theater created by the museum in conjunction with the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, which developed the groundbreaking technology (called New Dimensions in Testimony). Each of the participating survivors spent several days in a Los Angeles studio answering upward of 2,000 questions about their Holocaust experiences, and related issues, before the unblinking gaze of 50-plus cameras.
And now the St. Paul of the Cross students are the first to test the new 3-D theater, as the museum prepares for its opening.
The youngsters are not shy about what they want to know from Fritzshall.
“What was the hardest part of your experience in the concentration camp?” asks a student (the question conveyed via a museum staff member speaking into a microphone).
“I thought I would die when I was walking toward the gas chambers,” says Fritzshall’s likeness. “I thought I would die when I didn’t have enough food. I didn’t think I would last another day without food. I thought I would die many times just walking in the camp itself when I heard a shot coming at someone standing next to me.
“There was never any certainty when we were in Auschwitz.”
Fritzshall’s chilling answer inspires still more raised hands.
“What thoughts were going through your mind when soldiers walked in your door and told you you had 15 minutes to pack?” asks another student, basing the question on information from the opening film.
“The last days of Passover were still celebrated with my family,” explains Fritzshall’s figure. “I remember going to bed. I remember the knock on the door. I remember the soldiers standing in front of the door with a rifle pointing at us. I remember standing in front of this door with my mother and her three children around her, myself and my two younger brothers. She was told to gather her things and to march outdoors.”
Fritzshall’s facsimile expounds on life in the fenced-in Jewish ghetto into which her family was herded, and the pain of knowing that no one came to help.
“This is something I don’t understand to this day,” she tells her audience. “Our friends, our neighbors, the community that was not Jewish, at this point walking around the fence, looking at us, sticking out their tongues, commenting and making fun of us, who were their neighbors yesterday. My friend who slept with me in the bed yesterday is out there today making fun of me, her friend. This is something that I never understood.”
Then another student asks a key question: “What kept you going throughout the Holocaust?”
The hologramlike Fritzshall gathers her thoughts, then responds.
“We lived with hope in the camp,” she says of Auschwitz-Birkenau. “If we lost our hope, we would have lost ourselves. So hope was always there. I was pretty sure my mother did not survive, but I was hoping my brothers survived because I had seen them that one time during the time when we were doing slave labor, carrying the rocks, so in my mind, I was always hoping they would survive, and hoping they had survived.
“And I think that was one of the reasons that I kept going and wanted to live so badly, hoping that some of us from our immediate family would survive.”
None besides Fritzshall did.
That the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center should become the first institution in the world to present “fully interactive video biographies in a permanent exhibition space” — as USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith puts it in an email — can be credited to remarkable coincidence and herculean effort.
Museum board member Jim Goodman long had been interested in holography and had been thinking, “Wouldn’t this be great to record not only our survivors but good people who have done good things?” he recalls.
He traveled around the world exploring the latest technology, pitched the idea to the museum board and one day in 2013 found himself seated next to an intriguing stranger at an event in Washington marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Of 4,000 people in the audience, this guy is sitting next to me, we start talking, and he says: ‘Who are you with?’” remembers Goodman.
“I said: the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
“And he said: Anything interesting?
“So I said I’ve been working on this hologram idea.
“And he said: ‘You’re kidding? Is this a setup? I’m working on this.’
“His program was much more sophisticated, with interactive voice recognition technology, where the subjects answered questions.”
Goodman began telling everyone at the museum about the USC Shoah Foundation venture but faced skepticism.
“We all looked at him and said: ‘What? How much is it going to cost?’” remembers Fritzshall, the museum’s president, in an interview.
“And he was like the bulldog.”
Susan Abrams, appointed the museum’s CEO in 2014, already was focusing on “the notion of how will we tell survivors stories for generations to come,” she recalls.
“So we developed a portfolio of about eight different strategies for how we will tell survivors’ stories going forward, when we’re not privileged to hear from the survivors.”
In other words, after the last Holocaust survivor has passed away, how will their stories survive?
The USC Shoah Foundation’s technology offered a potentially mesmerizing answer to that question, perpetuating not only the survivors’ testimony but also their facial expressions, tone of voice, body language — personal characteristics that render their truths palpably real and compelling.
Moreover, the museum and the USC Shoah Foundation proved an elegant match — the foundation had the technology and the museum had the audience and, potentially, a theater.
A two-dimensional version of a Survivor Stories Theater had been running in a temporary space in the museum since spring 2015. But now the completed and renamed Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience brings the concept to fruition in 3-D (no, you don’t wear special glasses), with accompanying galleries to enrich the visit.
On this day, Fritzshall’s testimony proves riveting to her audience.
“Amazing,” says a 12-year-old seventh-grader named Laila (St. Paul of the Cross School requested that we not use her surname).
“I’ve learned about the Holocaust before from multiple people, but it’s such a different experience hearing it from someone who went through it themselves,” adds Laila. “Hearing how it affected her life, it affects your life.”
Peyton Daly, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from St. Juliana School in Chicago, watches Fritzshall with her classmates after the St. Paul of the Cross session. She asks the holographic Fritzshall if she ever tried to escape.
At which point Peyton bursts into tears.
“I tried to hold it in, but there was a point where I just asked my question, and I couldn’t hold it in anymore,” says Peyton afterward.
“I feel like it was very moving, because I can’t imagine this happening to me or any other people around the world. And I just feel like I don’t want it to happen to others.”
Fritzshall’s answer to Peyton’s question — “When we were in Auschwitz, there was no escape for us” — stings.
Says Peyton: “I feel she’s such a brave person to be able to sit up there and explain her story to anyone and everyone who was able to listen to the story.
“I felt like that person was actually up there,” says Peyton, “and I feel like I was actually talking to her.”
Which is precisely the idea.
“They’re just the right age,” says Anne Hoversen, a St. Paul of the Cross teacher accompanying students to the museum. “You get the child when they’re young and encourage them to be the ones in the future to make change. I teach history. I keep telling them: You’re the future. Learn well. You make the change.”
But it’s not just children who are the intended audience of the Take a Stand Center. Adults, parents, grandparents, siblings — anyone with a stake in humanity has reason to absorb what happens here.
After the session in the theater, the students pour into the Goodman Upstander Gallery, where they see a reproduction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document produced by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948 establishing “for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected,” according to the United Nations.
From there, the students visit modules where they can watch films on five themes the museum has drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: economic opportunity, equal rights, safe communities, education, and health and environment.
The visitors interact with displays of “upstanders” who have championed human rights. When the students flip over small portraits of these heroes, they can read the humanists’ words:
“It takes no compromise to give people their rights …” — Harvey Milk
“When you start a new trial equipped with courage, strength, and conviction, the only thing that can stop you is you.” — Ruby Bridges
“I said to myself, ‘Malala, you must be brave. You must not be afraid of anyone. You are only trying to get an education. You are not committing a crime.’” — Malala Yousafzai
These phrases are inscribed on mirrors, so the visitors literally can see themselves in these words.
Then the youngsters press ahead to Take a Stand Lab, where they push touch screens to answer questions about themselves, read suggested courses of action and email themselves a “toolkit” on how to speak to elected officials or start a letter-writing campaign or create a petition or otherwise stand up and be heard.
Finally, the students pass through the Act of Art Gallery, featuring works on themes of social justice and commentary from the artists who created them. For example: Alongside Won-Chul Jung’s “The Testimony” (1998), which features stylized images of Korean women forced to be prostitutes by the Japanese Army during World War II, a plaque contains these words from the artist: “Although the wrinkles in each portrait represent each individual’s historical truth … emotional scars are untouchable.”
Clearly, the museum is trying to encourage its visitors — kids and adults alike — to get involved.
“All of us here think our museum is not just about history,” says Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, the museum’s vice president of education and exhibition and project manager for the Take a Stand Center.
“We don’t want our visitors to walk away thinking: Oh, what an interesting history lesson. We want them to understand how this applies to them today and to take action based on that.”
Or, as museum CEO Abrams puts it, “It’s about moving people from understanding to inspiration and to action. … What we know is that for many of our visitors, that could be a vast and overwhelming (prospect). What can I as a lone individual do? What can I as one young person do? What can I as one person without many resources do?”
The Take a Stand Lab addresses these questions and visibly inspires the visitors on this morning. An area where guests are invited to take a piece of paper and pencil, write down a pledge and post it for all to see overflows with entries:
“I pledge to raise awareness by doing social events.”
“I have noticed how much gets thrown away from school lunch and I think it should be donated or given to kids that can’t/don’t have food.”
“I pledge to not litter and go to church every day.”
“I pledge to help out people that do not have as much as me.”
“I pledge to work to raise awareness about mental health and LGBT rights.”
Considering the moral underpinning of the Take a Stand Center — which champions human rights that are under siege to this day, in the United States and elsewhere — the museum ultimately is doing exactly what it’s urging visitors to do: taking a stand.
For this, there could be resistance from some quarters.
“I’m OK if there’s a visitor who thinks: I don’t think climate change is real,” says project manager Buchholz-Miller. “They can have a discussion about that with whoever they’re here with or have a discussion with their family.
“I think there’s a lot of issues that we profile, so there are issues that people can find that are of interest to them. The actions you take — those are neutral as to what your issue is. It’s action you can take on whatever side of the fence you’re on.”
CEO Abrams believes that “we are trying to look at current issues with an apolitical point of view. And an example of that would be: We’re not especially talking about climate change, (though) we are an institution with an understanding of and respect for science.
“But we’re looking for individual access to clean water, clean air — all of which are part of a healthy human existence.”
Hard to argue with that.
Will any of this make any difference?
Will the translucent, talking images of Holocaust survivors and the multiple galleries surrounding the theater change anything in a nation and a world increasingly at war with itself?
“I understand that not every child that comes here is here because he wants to be there,” says Fritzshall in an interview.
“He’s there because his mother brought him or his school brought him. I understand that we don’t touch each child. But I also understand that we plant a seed in some of these children.
“And I hope we’re planting a seed in what they’re going to see in our holography, and that seed will grow. And some of them will want to look into a book, they’ll want go to a film, they’re going to ask questions. I honestly think that’s going to happen.”
Aaron Elster, a Holocaust survivor and the museum’s first vice president, speaks eloquently during his own 3-D discourse. And he holds out hope for a world that once betrayed him.
“We survivors feel that when we are gone, our story is gone,” says Elster, in an interview.
The holographic project “will continue the existence of our stories of our families,” he adds. “Our hope and our prayer is to enlighten people as to the people who stood up and made a difference, versus the bystanders that let things happen.
“The bystanders, some of them are just as guilty as the perpetrators. They couldn’t care less.
“What am I hoping for?” he asks. “I’m hoping that many, many years from now, people will still be able to speak with me. That I will be able to answer questions for them, that I’ll make the Holocaust more than just a story.”
Thanks to this exhibition, Elster and his fellow survivors will teach generations how to prevent the next injustice, the next genocide.
And this critical message will be delivered by individuals who hold unique moral authority to show us the way.
‘Take a Stand’ at a glance
The Take a Stand Center will have a public opening celebration 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie. Museum admission is $15 starting Oct. 29; admission price includes the theater. For more information, 847-967-4800 or www.ilholocaustmuseum.org.
Following are highlights of the Take a Stand Center:
Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience: Visitors watch a short film on one of 13 Holocaust survivors, then can ask questions of a holographic image of the survivor. Reservations required.
Goodman Upstander Gallery: Guests explore the stories and lessons of “upstanders” who have championed humanity, among them Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Malala Yousafzai and Theaster Gates.
Take a Stand Lab: Visitors can operate an Interactive Media Kiosk that provides tools for getting involved in social action.
Act of Art Gallery: Art works conveying themes of social justice are the last images visitors see in the Take a Stand Center, the pieces accompanied by plaques featuring the words of the artists.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.