Nothing can really explain the magnitude of the Holocaust. In the face of such horror, we can only stand and stare in mute silence. Yet we keep endeavoring to make sense so that we do not forget, so that we do not repeat. Books and movies and museums have long been a part of that explanation and education. Now museums are adding another portal into that experience that uses 21st-century technology to illuminate this 20th-century inhumanity.
The Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg is showing the award-winning, fully immersive virtual reality film, The Last Goodbye, joining the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in this premiere. Produced by the USC Shoah Foundation, this film bears witness to the Nazi atrocities.
“We felt that producing the first Holocaust survivor testimony in roomscale VR would engage audiences in understanding the nature of the Nazi concentration camp system where the SS authorities could murder targeted groups,” said USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith, also one of the film’s producers. “The ramifications of such human behavior continue today, and one way to counter that devolution is to understand it by gazing an unflinching eye upon it.”
Patrons don the virtual reality goggles and walk with Pinchas Gutter, now 85, as he narrates his own childhood experiences at age 11 in the Nazi death camp at Majdanek, Poland. With virtual reality, you are there in a stunning, cinematic virtuosity as close to the real thing as possible, short of setting foot yourself into a concentration camp. We hear Gutter’s voice, and he looks directly into our eyes as he describes his despair over losing his family and desperately searching for his younger sister, whom he never sees again. That horror increases as his memory fades and he cannot conjure up his sister’s face, only her golden braids.
As the decades pass, more and more camp survivors are gone, so there are fewer and fewer live testimonials to bring us these memorable reckonings. The USC Shoah Foundation has digitized over 54,000 testimonials, many of from Florida residents, and now The Last Goodbye stands as the first of those virtual reality films to put the viewer there in the camp with the survivor; we look into his eyes as he speaks to us, one to one, directly.
Filmed in 2016, it’s not explicitly graphic — no piles of bodies, just the human voice, the human eye, talking and guiding us through his experience. We ride together to the camp, sitting side by side with Gutter. Then we follow him through the camp, stopping when he pauses to reflect, sitting next to us on a bench, remembering. The experience enables viewers to enter the life-size projections of the railroad car, look end-to-end and imagine the noise and chaos inside that car; walk into the gas chamber, reach out and touch, virtually, the wall, doorway, nozzle; walk into the shower room and barracks, all in Majdanek seven decades later.
You are mesmerized by his gentle voice and stunned when he says, simply, “We tried to make ourselves invisible.”
It is chilling.
“For over 27 years, the educational philosophy of The Florida Holocaust Museum has centered on teaching about the Holocaust, worldwide genocide, and human rights issues through individual stories. Our goal is to connect one person to one person, bringing the focus away from incomprehensible numbers and to the actual people who were affected. The immersive experience of The Last Goodbye is a game-changer for Holocaust education,” Elizabeth Gelman, Executive Director of The FHM, says.
The 17-minute film is exhibited within an installation created by David Korins, the renowned designer of Broadway hits Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. Thousands of photos were stitched together by an expert at Moving Picture Company to create three-dimensional images of the interiors to scale. Gutter’s video testimony, taken in the same spaces, was then incorporated into the film, providing a vivid environment in which he recounts his heartbreaking story of suffering, loss and survival.
The exhibit is included with the price of museum admission. Because it is a one-at-a-time experience, happening every 30 minutes, call ahead to schedule an individual viewing.
These fractious times we live in remind us we must never forget. Such an intimate experience stands as a testament to the strength of the human heart and the enduring power of hope and perseverance.
Ben Wiley taught literature and film at St. Petersburg College. At USF/Tampa, he was statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are film, theater, books and kayaking Florida rivers. He also writes the BookStories feature in Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact him here.