'It’s incredibly intimate; you’re pulled into these lives'

In NY, virtual reality puts a human face on the horrors of a Nazi death camp

A new multimedia display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage uses virtual reality and personal artifacts to flesh out the murdered Jews the Nazis tried to view as mere numbers

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Pinchas Gutter tours the concentration camp where his parents and twin sister were murdered during World War II in this screenshot from 'The Last Goodbye.' (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)
Pinchas Gutter tours the concentration camp where his parents and twin sister were murdered during World War II in this screenshot from 'The Last Goodbye.' (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

NEW YORK — Pinchas Gutter stands on the platform. Behind him, the trees appear to sway ever so slightly in the breeze. He recalls the moment he and his twin were cleaved apart — how all he remembers of Sabina, then 11, is her long, golden braid.

Next the octogenarian stands inside the gas chamber where his sister and parents perished. His pain is as palpable as his determination to sear his story into the consciousness of his audience — a pain made all the more poignant by the fact that each viewer is actually “with” Gutter in the Nazi death machine.

Seen through a virtual reality headset, Gutter says that “to confront pain is the only way to heal.”

It is part of the virtual reality film “The Last Goodbye,” in which Gutter invites visitors to walk alongside him as he returns one last time to Majdanek, the place where his parents and his twin sister were murdered.

The 20 minute film experience, co-produced with the US Shoah Foundation, is part of “In Confidence: Holocaust History Told By Those Who Lived It,” a new multimedia installation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Through correspondence, journals, photographs, artwork, and testimonies the exhibit makes the past personal.

“Having little children myself, and seeing some of what was produced by young people in the camps, it’s an overwhelming feeling,” said Michel Glickman, the museum’s president and CEO.

“And then to experience Majdanek with Pinchas, it leaves you with as many questions as answers. You do lose yourself in the moment. It’s incredibly intimate — you’re being pulled into his life,” he said.

After the conclusion of the film “The Last Goodbye,” a museum staff member escorts the viewer to the interactive exhibit, “Dimensions in Testimony.” There, they stand before a projection of Gutter and can ask him questions about his experience, from what he remembers about life before the war to his first impression upon arriving in Majdanek. Gutter recorded answers to 1,500 questions over five days. The technology works similar to Siri or Alexa, where key words prompt answers, said Miriam Haier, the installation’s curator and the museum’s director of strategy and engagement.

In the future, Gutter, and a number of other survivors who participated in similar interviews, will bear their testimony as holograms.

“If part of the Nazi project was to degrade and divest people of humanity, we want to reinvest them with humanity,” said Haier.

“Each time someone wrote something, or painted something, it resisted the attempt to reduce them to numbers,” Haier said.

‘I hope that my brother’s name will be remembered’

Displaying rare and never before seen artifacts, “In Confidence” seeks to pull visitors into the lives of others. That’s why the installation is organized by medium, rather than a strict chronology, Haier said.

Among the personal artifacts featured are autograph books, a photo album filled with pictures of smiling friends, and a 10-year-old girl’s letters to her mother that capture the day-to-day life of prisoners in Terezin. On the walls are large panel displays of letters and photographs.

In July 1942, Gita Hojtasova (10 years old), Zuzana (7 years old), and their mother Gertrude were deported from their native Prague to the Terezin concentration camp/ghetto. They were liberated in 1945. Drawings in colored pencil, often on rag paper, show Zuzana’s expression of the complicated childhood that she endured in Terezin. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Survivors, or their families, donated most of the items featured in this installation — sometimes so that the remaining traces of their loved ones’ lives would be preserved.

“We want people to have a deep engagement with something, to find some connection with a human being,” Haier said.

That was Gerda Loewenstein’s hope when she donated 53 of her brother Peter’s artworks to the museum with the following appeal: “I hope that my brother’s name will be remembered and his work appreciated.”

“She was very clear when she donated to the museum that this was about remembrance,” Haier said.

Peter Loewenstein was deported to the Terezin concentration camp in the autumn of 1941, when he was 22 years old. While in Terezin, he created about 70 drawings in ink and watercolor. With each brushstroke, each dab of paint, he tried to hold onto his humanity.

Peter Loewenstein, ‘South Barracks,’ 1944,
watercolor on paper, signed and dated on the bottom right: ‘PL 44.’ (Gift of Gerda and Herman Korngold/ Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

He tried to depict what the Jewish people imprisoned there experienced on a daily basis. In 1944, when he learned he would be deported to Auschwitz, Loewenstein gave his portfolio to his mother. Then, just before she and his sister Gerda were deported, his mother passed it to a family friend. Loewenstein perished in Auschwitz; only Gerda survived. After the war she reclaimed his artwork.

Another highlight of the section devoted to artwork includes over 100 drawings by Helga Weissova during the nearly three years she spent in Terezin between the ages of 12 and 14.

Weissova drew everyday scenes such as people scrambling for food and preparations for a visit by the Red Cross. In 1944 Weissova and her mother Irena were deported from Terezin and sent to Auschwitz. They went on to Freiburg, and finally Mauthausen, where the US Army liberated them on May 5, 1945.

After the war she reclaimed her drawings, which her uncle Josef Polak had hidden in a barracks wall at Terezin.

Helga Weissova, ‘Odchazejici Transport/ Transport leaving Terezin,’ 1943.
Watercolor and ink on paper. People walk past the Hamburg barracks to the train that will deliver them to Auschwitz. Others witness their deportation — and say goodbye. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

A late postwar reawakening

The exhibit, which runs through January 31, 2019, includes a range of formats from a range of time periods, including postwar. For example, “The Art of Mikhail Turovsky” wasn’t begun until 1980.

“In the post-World War II Soviet Union, there was no open acknowledgment of the Holocaust. Jews that managed to escape Kiev and return after the war learned of the deaths of their loved ones only because they had disappeared from the face of the earth,” Mikhail Turovsky, 85, said in a press release.

“There was no official information or record of where or how they died. I wanted to express this tragedy, to convey the horror that these people — my grandmother and cousins among them — experienced in the face of annihilation, to express my own pain and compassion,” he said.

In the years since, Turovsky’s Holocaust paintings have been exhibited at Yad Vashem, the headquarters of the United Nations Organization, and at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.

Photo of Gita and Zuzana Hojtasova in their family business in 1945. (Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Some of the work on display comes from people who always intended on preserving and sharing their stories. Other creators, like Rywka Lipszyc, likely never envisioned that their work would become public. In the section “The Girl in the Diary,” which is presented in cooperation with the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland, visitors can read excerpts from Lipszyc’s journal.

Lipszyc, then 14, wrote her diary while living in the Lodz Ghetto from 1943 to 1944. She writes of being treated like a child because of her age. She writes an entry on the day her brother was deported; about people dying of starvation; and how she fears her mind will go to waste living in the ghetto. And she writes that the only person who has permission to read her diary is her friend Surica.

Replica of the found diary of Rywka Lipszyc. ‘The Girl in the Diary’ is presented in cooperation with the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland. (Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center of San Francisco/ Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage)

A Soviet doctor discovered the diary after the war near the ruins of Crematorium 3 at Auschwitz. Although she couldn’t read it, she knew it was important and saved it.

While the fate of the diary is known, Lipszyc’s fate is not. It is not known whether her young life was cut short like the final sentence on the last surviving page of her diary.

“A few years ago, in my dreams, when I was imagining my future, I could see sometimes: an evening, a studio, a desk, there is a woman sitting at the desk (an older woman), she’s writing… and writing, and writing… all the time… she forgets about her surroundings, she’s writing. I can see myself as this woman,” Lipszyc wrote on February 28, 1944.

For Haier, who spent months putting together the installation, it is perhaps the letters and journals that are the most affecting.

“I feel some responsibility reading something that was never meant for the public,” Haier said. “I think about what responsibility do we have to read it and I wonder what does that mean that we are the carriers of these stories?”

Reservations are recommended for the “The Last Goodbye.”

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