The brochure promises a 360-degree view of Auschwitz, announcing, “For the first time in Israel: A virtual-reality tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, using a VR headset.” How can you refuse?
In Israel, sometimes it feels like you don’t need a VR headset. Auschwitz is present 24/7 and all around. It’s there every time the threat of Iran is mentioned, every time the Israeli flag is raised at the World Cup stadium in Qatar, and every time Israel wins the Eurovision Song Contest or the UEFA Champions League. It’s there at the end of every election, every war, every ritual circumcision and every wedding. We remember and never forget.
Now Auschwitz has become an attraction at Jerusalem’s Mamilla open-air mall. “Feeling as if you’re there: The VR headsets enable you to be present at the camp,” the brochure promises. Great, Auschwitz is now available at the mall. An essential commodity.
At the end of the avenue of shops, a man of the “dapper homeless” type limps along, wearing cotton trousers and a dirty sweater and blazer. His sartorial choice might be misleading, but the smell gives him away. “I was king of the house,” he mumbles, and occasionally roars: “I was king of the house!”
I ask the barista at the café if this is an example of Jerusalem syndrome. She says it’s blackjack syndrome. The man lost his home playing cards. I’m reminded of my grandparents’ neighborhood in Rehovot, where there was a woman who walked around mumbling to herself: “tomorrow is laundry day, tomorrow is laundry day.” We called her Madame Laundry until we were told that “she was in the Holocaust” and that one day her children were taken to “help with the laundry,” and she never saw them again.
My grandfather immigrated to Israel from Germany before Hitler rose to power. Throughout the years, up until he lost his eyesight, he drove a German-made Volkswagen Beetle. My grandparents on the other side were Russian halutzim. The Holocaust didn’t seem to be ours. Still, almost all my parents’ uncles disappeared somewhere in the smoke plumes of Europe.
Try as we may, we cannot escape Auschwitz. “You can look 360 degrees around you and even gain a bird’s-eye-view with the help of a drone hovering above,” the brochure says. “You feel the earth and see the ashes. You’re physically there; you hear your own footsteps. Follow the guide as he makes his way from the crematoria to the showers, from the barracks to the train tracks to the lineup area. Touch the wooden bunks. Experience the same emotional impact experienced by those who travel to Poland.” Who could say no to that?
The mall’s Time Elevator space looks completely empty on this Sunday afternoon, anyway. It offers various attractions, like a virtual trip inside the human body or a multimedia show about the history of Jerusalem. The Auschwitz show – “360 degrees in Auschwitz VR” – is the latest one.
I reserve a ticket for the 3 P.M. show and arrive a minute or two late. There’s no one at the entrance and the lobby is silent. I worry I’m late and that the show has started without me. Then it turns out that I’m the only one there. I decide to do what I’ve been taught and follow the proverb: “In a place where there are no men, try to be a man.”
It’s a small room with bare walls, a black curtain and a linoleum floor, about a third of the area of an average classroom with nothing on the wall but six remembrance candles and the inscription “yizkor.”
A young woman with her hair covered sits next to a computer stand. An open bag of snacks is on her table near some nuts. The tiny room has 14 computer seats, each with a VR headset. For some reason, it reminds me of a doctor’s examination. The nice woman asks me to put on the glasses, and with a push of a button transports me to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The first thing is a short explanation video about the virtual reality experience. A breathtaking VR view of mountaintops appears, with soothing meditation music in the background. A narrator says you can look up and to the sides. It’s important that we feel comfortable. “If you run into a problem or feel discomfort, raise your hand,” says the voice.
It sounds so vulgar that I’m almost disappointed when the video starts playing and I discover how serious the experience is. The presentation doesn’t reproduce Auschwitz via computerized graphics, or simulate the life of a camp inmate.
It’s merely a film of about one hour, in which a guide leads us among the paths and blocks of Auschwitz-Birkenau as they look today and teaches us about the Holocaust through the stories of those who were imprisoned there. I came expecting to see a display of bad taste, the commercialization of the Holocaust. I got a surprise.
Through the VR glasses, I float above the railway tracks and am pulled forward to the camp gates. The rattle of train carriages crackles from the earphones. The VR headset creates a realistic illusion, and now I am inside. You can argue about the necessity of Israeli students’ trips to Poland and their negative aspects, but the kitsch in this experience is no different from any other display about Auschwitz.
The guide leads us to the selection area, Josef Mengele’s “clinic,” the gas chambers and the crematoria. He outlines the process that every new arrival went through. Alongside archival black-and-white photos, we see from up close the exhibits at the camp today, and you can almost smell the shoes in the huge pile.
The three ultra-Orthodox creatives behind the project are Miriam Cohen, Yuti Neiman and Chani Koplowitz, who have been managing production studios for years.
“I hear from so many people that they were put off,” says Koplowitz. It looked to them like making a game of the Holocaust, like a gaming version of Auschwitz. It sounds terrible. They don’t know what happens there. Ultimately, when you experience it you see it’s the furthest thing from that.”
Koplowitz, 35, has nine children. Her parents aren’t Holocaust survivors, she says, but she has been what she calls an “amateur Holocaust researcher” from a young age. As a child, she spent hours in the Ginzach Kiddush Hashem archive, a center for Holocaust research and documentation across the street from her family’s home in Bnei Brak.
What characterizes Holocaust education in the Haredi community?
“Holocaust education is there all the time, it’s just less systematic, it isn’t necessarily linked to Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yes, there’s a peak, which is during Three Weeks, which is a period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple [in Jerusalem]. Then there are more lectures and talks with survivors. There’s a lot of material about the Holocaust, but we’ve detected a lack of [seeing it] face-to-face. We didn’t know how to solve that, and then we encountered VR technology.”
Haredim don’t send yeshiva students to trips to the Nazi German camps in Poland. Koplowitz says she and her two partners looked for a way to fill that lack of knowledge. They are promoting the VR tour to various schools, companies and institutions.
“No need to leave your workplace or school,” the brochure states. “Skip the hassle of arranging transportation and traveling; save the extra expense and spare yourself physical exertion. Our staff comes to you with a personal headset comprised of earphones and VR glasses.” A delivery of Auschwitz to your home, just like Uber.
“We went through agony,” says Koplowitz. “Nobody understood what we wanted, because VR is used for gaming, apps, avatars, and suddenly three women filmmakers arrive and say, ‘let’s make cinema out of it.’ You’re a passive viewer, with no control over space. Nobody in the business agreed with us and refused to take it to such a place. Nobody believed that someone would sit with a VR headset for more than a quarter of an hour without doing anything.”
Where did they want to take it?
“They wanted to make a model of Auschwitz. Just hearing that phrase, I was appalled. Someone told us, ‘let the viewer control the space.’ I said to him, ‘you want to make a “catch the Nazi” app?’ It’s appalling in every way, that kind of talk, That’s what all the companies and all the people suggested we do. They tried to play on the field they were familiar with, and we insisted that it’s a game we won’t take part in. We simply decided to go it alone.”
The hidden shofar
Koplowitz says they bought a small camera and started researching the technology. They watched VR National Geographic tours, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then came the coronavirus pandemic. “All of Europe was shut down. Auschwitz also closed to visitors,” she says.
She saw it as a great opportunity. “In my experience, they sometimes let us use a classroom at a school or a film laboratory. So I naively thought, ‘please, let them open Auschwitz for shooting. It’s empty now, anyway.”
She says she didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get a permit to film there: “Spielberg was also forced to film outside.” When Steven Spielberg was filming “Schindler’s List,” Polish authorities gave him permission to film at the camp, but opposition from Jewish organizations led to the possibility being scrapped.
“We went to Yad Vashem and they cooperated with us, but on the issue of filming in Auschwitz, we had to find a solution ourselves,” Koplowitz says.
She and her partners were determined and sought to make contact with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum’s board of directors. Their liaison convened a meeting of the board to discuss the request, and one day told them: “I’m going into a meeting; say a prayer.”
Koplowitz recalls: “We turn off the computers and pray. Light candles. I, the Moroccan, light about 6 million candles, and after four and a half hours, she calls and says, ‘I fought until the last moment. You have a permit next week to come for three days to film in the camp.’ Imagine the screams in the studio.”
They organized the trip in three days. The production team managed to land in Warsaw despite the ban on flights, but it then transpired that the country was under lockdown and they couldn’t leave the airport. “We told them we had a special permit and had to film there that day,” Koplowitz says. “Finally, they allowed us to go on the condition that we promised not to go out of Auschwitz’s borders.”
Apart from the guide, it was everyone’s first visit to the camp. “We went in, and it took us time to find our way around, to understand that place,” she says. “Then the escort came and closed the gate behind us, because the site was closed to visitors. That key is locked behind us with a clang, the drone in the air broadcasts footage, and then we begin to understand the magnitude of the place. We stood there paralyzed and couldn’t do anything.”
They filmed in the camp for three days, from sunrise to sundown. At night, they slept in the town of Oświęcim.
In the short film, the guide leading viewers is Yisrael Goldwasser, an observant Jew. “We are about to enter a site of greatness and exaltedness,” he proclaims, preparing us for the tales of martyrdom. And that is the overriding tone of the entire film. If there is anything truly surprising about it, and induces any feelings of discomfort about the activity, it is that this is a faith-based version of Auschwitz. We are compelled to join the guide as he recites the prayer for rain, and hear anecdotes about Jews who were shot to death because they insisted on taking their tefillin (phylacteries) with them from the train.
“Every Jew has his own personal tefillin bag,” Goldwasser tells us. He describes “the sanctified” who were “taken into heaven by a whirlwind,” quoting from the Bible.
One of the most noteworthy shots in the film shows Goldwasser, wrapped in a tallit, walking the paths of the camp. The drone camera captures him from above, marching alone through the immense camp. “The Jews here went to their funeral without a tallit,” he explains to the viewers. “They are up on high, without their atarot” – the distinctive mesh-metal collars of prayer shawls – “basking in the radiance of the divine spirit.”
The film also features the story of a prisoner who concealed a shofar beneath the floorboards of the barrack and the story of Reb Moishe Peshigorski, who gave up a slice of bread in exchange for a siddur (prayer book).
There is also the testimony of a survivor who, in the face of deep despair, ran toward the electrified fence in order to kill himself, but heard as he was running heard a barely audible rendition of “Ma’oz Tzur” – a Hebrew song sung during the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony – sung by members of the Sonderkommando, who were lighting candles in secret. The finger of God prompted him to change his mind, and he lived.
Koplowitz acknowledges her declared choice to tell the story of the Holocaust by way of a faith-based narrative: “Nearly 40 percent of the victims looked like and spoke like the guide. We didn’t try to be a historical research project; we do not offer a whole lot of numbers and data. We set out to focus on a religiously observant demographic group and on how it dealt with being in the camp. Which is why it is very important for us to say so in a clear voice.
“We are not saying that this is how all of them looked; we came to tell a certain story. It’s like a single episode of a series in which there is a directed focus on the faith-based narrative. When you say so in advance, it is accepted with love.”
Such a narrative also invites additional questions, such as the classic question of where God was during the Holocaust.
“It’s true. I see that this question arises in the wake of the conversations we conduct in schools after the experience.”
The film doesn’t touch on this question.
“No, but I’m glad it comes up. Both when we presented the experience at Bleich High School [in Ramat Gan] and when we staged it at a super Haredi school.”
You’ve presented it at Bleich and at other secular schools. No one complains that you’re trying to push religious values?
“No, because this is a display window of religious values. That is what we are: three female Haredi filmmakers. We say so ahead of time and if anyone isn’t OK with that, then it’s perfectly fine for them to forgo the experience. There’s no coercion here; what there is here is a focus on specific values that gave people strength.”
Indeed, as the film shows the barracks in Auschwitz, there is suddenly the eyewitness testimony of survivor Rivka Binyamini, who recounts how she tried to light Shabbat candles in Auschwitz and how miraculously enough, the candles lit. “It gave me a great deal of strength,” she says.
One could think cynically about the question of where as God was in the Holocaust, but in this instance, Binyamini offers an answer. He was within her, she says and if he – imagined or real – gave her the strength to survive, as she attests, then perhaps he fulfilled his role in that atrocity.
At the end of the film, our guide delivers a Shema prayer over the gas chambers with particular intensity. And amazingly, we are transported from Holocaust to rebirth; we find ourselves far, far away from Auschwitz, at a ceremony in which Israeli paratroopers are sworn in at the Western Wall.
One after another, the native-born Israeli warriors walk into the plaza and are handed their weapons from their commanders, while in the background Yehoram Gaon sings from the Book of Psalms: “Our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.
Then shall they say among the nations,
the Lord has done great things for them!”
The ceremony has ended. Congratulations, we have been liberated from Auschwitz. Good luck in your civilian lives.
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