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Using digital technology to preserve Holocaust memory and places

The entrance of Bergen Belsen concentration camp

 

The Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, famously said that to forget a holocaust is to kill twice. And the most powerful way that the memory of the Holocaust has been sustained is through the personal testimony of those who lived through it and survived.

More than seventy years on, with fewer and fewer survivors still with us, how can the power of that human connection to personal memories be retained? One answer is digital technologies, which are enabling current and future generations to continue to create a personal connection with survivors.

Many places connected to the Holocaust have long battled with a similar question – how to create a strong connection, where often there is little left to see on the ground. At the former Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, where 52,000 prisoners died in horrific conditions, the camp buildings were burned down in 1945 to prevent the spread of disease and the site is now a memorial, with a museum and archive.

Digital technology could soon make a visit to Bergen-Belsen a very different experience. New research, led by the University of Leeds, is exploring how to link 360-degree photography of the site to relevant archive material such as films, photographs, diaries, news footage and oral testimonies, to create an interactive and immersive virtual environment.

Joining Bergen-Belsen in the project are other former concentration camps – Westerbork in the Netherlands and Neuengamme in Germany – and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. All of the sites are already exploring the use of digital technology, but this concept – called Virtual Holocaust Memoryscapes – will take things much further, as lead researcher, Dr Matt Boswell from the University of Leeds, explains:

“We’re coming to the end of the historical period in which people still have living memories of the Holocaust and without that personal link, how we relate to those memories will change,” he said. “New forms of immersive technology – drawing on techniques used in gaming and virtual reality – can provide another kind of connection to these memories. We want to see how it can change our understanding of the past and of history and the way we engage with places like Bergen-Belsen, where so little remains on the ground.”

The Virtual Holocaust Memoryscape project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will require painstaking work on two fronts: both the technical development to create the virtual environment and the collection and collation of the archive material. This material is currently fragmented, so drawing together a full catalogue, with the necessary copyrights, is in itself a major undertaking. The project will create a prototype ‘virtual memoryscape’ for Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme – and then the team will apply for further funding to develop a fully functional system that could be used for any site.

The aim is that the virtual memoryscape could be accessed via an app or website – allowing people anywhere in the world to visit a Holocaust memorial site – or be used on the ground, making a visit to the sites a more powerful experience.

Not himself from a digital background, Dr Boswell’s original field of research focused on more conventional means of transmitting Holocaust memory: literature and film. A small Research Mobility award grant from the University of Leeds allowed him to collaborate with universities in Australia on this subject. This then led to a larger International Research Collaboration award from the Worldwide Universities Network to organise an international conference in Leeds on transnational Holocaust memory. The event opened Dr Boswell’s eyes as to how many Holocaust sites and organisations were starting to embrace new technology.

“I realised that this was a big change in how information on the Holocaust was being transmitted which was likely to impact on Holocaust memory globally,” he said. “I wanted to look at why these digital projects were emerging, what they were trying to achieve and how that might change transnational Holocaust memory.”

Dr Boswell was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to carry out a survey of different Holocaust memory projects around the world which were using digital technology. Some of the most striking examples he found were projects in the US and UK that are using natural language processing to allow audiences to hold a ‘virtual conversation’ with 3D recordings of Holocaust survivors – enabling the survivors to live on and speak to future generations across history. The two organisations involved in this work in the UK – the National Holocaust Centre and Museum and design company Bright White – are now members of the Virtual Holocaust Memoryscape project.

“The personal testimony of survivors has always been the most powerful means of ensuring the Holocaust can never be forgotten,” said Dr Boswell.  “But with remaining survivors now old and frail, digital technology is ensuring that personal interaction can still continue. The Virtual Holocaust Memoryscape project draws on a similar idea, but aims to enable interaction not only with people, but with places and the history they hold.”

Like many research projects, the idea itself came from a chance meeting between Dr Boswell and research associate in new media at the University of Leeds, Tom Jackson. Mr Jackson had created an immersive, virtual archive of a former flax mill in Leeds, Temple Works, and Dr Boswell immediately saw how something similar could work for a Holocaust landscape.

He was able to draw on the contacts he’d made during his survey work and international collaborations to put together the right team to deliver the project: five universities in the UK and US with expertise from arts and humanities to computer science; the three former concentration camps, the Anne Frank House and the UK’s National Holocaust Centre and Museum; and two specialist companies working in interactive and immersive technologies, Bright White and Stand+Stare.

 Dr Matt Boswell from the University of Leeds
Dr Matt Boswell from the University of Leeds

Dr Boswell said: “We’ve got on board organisations that are already working with or open to new technologies, but what we aim to create will be much more ambitious and sophisticated, integrating lots of archive material into an extensive landscape. And from a research perspective, we want to see how that changes people’s reaction to that material: rather than seeing each archive piece in isolation, how is it different when physically connected to the site?”

And – for sites like Bergen-Belsen in particular – how different will it feel to connect those now open spaces to archive material showing what happened there over seventy years ago?

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