Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (IHMEC) this winter became the first museum to pilot the next three New Dimensions in Testimony interviews after the original testimony of Pinchas Gutter.
Museum visitors can now interact with the testimonies of Holocaust survivors Sam Harris, Aaron Elster and Fritzie Fritzshall, in addition to Gutter, three weekends a month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
New Dimensions in Testimony is USC Shoah Foundation’s program to record interactive testimonies with Holocaust and genocide survivors. Interviewees were each filmed over the course of several days on a 360-degree light stage answering hundreds of questions about their lives before, during and after the genocide. Natural language technology then allows viewers to ask questions of the interviewee’s recorded image and hear their answers in real time.
Following the first-ever New Dimensions in Testimony interview with Gutter, filmed in 2013, USC Shoah Foundation recorded interviews with over a dozen additional Holocaust survivors and one Nanjing Massacre survivor, from 2015-2016. These interviews are in various stages of development as they are readied for public viewing. Only Gutter’s testimony has been exhibited in museums and festivals around the world – until now.
IHMEC is a longtime supporter of New Dimensions in Testimony. It was the first institution to pilot New Dimensions in Testimony’s Pinchas Gutter interview in 2015, and Harris, Elster and Fritzshall, three of the first survivors to be interviewed after Gutter, are all members of IHMEC’s founding leadership.
Harris is President Emeritus of IHMEC, Fritzshall is the current President and Elster is First Vice President. They are all also Executive Committee members.
Harris was born in Deblin, Poland, and survived the Holocaust with his two older sisters after their parents and other siblings were deported and killed. They hid in a farmhouse and then at the Tschenstochau concentration camp.
After escaping the liquidation of the Sokołow-Podlaski Ghetto in Poland, Elster hid in a Polish couple’s attic for two years. He and his sister were the only Jewish children from his hometown of Sokołow-Podlaski to survive the Holocaust.
Both Harris and Elster immigrated to the Chicago area soon after the war and lived with American families.
Fritzshall, born in Klucarky, Czechoslovakia, was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau at age 13. Most of her family was killed in the gas chambers, but Fritzshall survived and later ran from a death march into the forest, where she was liberated. She moved to the United States in 1946, where she was reunited with her father.
IHMEC visitors are welcome to stop by Classroom 35-36 any time during the open hours to have a conversation with the New Dimensions in Testimony interviews of Gutter, Harris, Elster and Fritzshall. Visitors have the chance to interact with one recording at a time, which are determined on a set schedule by the museum. On Saturdays the museum shows one recording from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then switches to a second from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. On Sundays, the museum shows the same recording for the full four-hour session.
Docent attendants are on hand in the classroom to provide guidance, but visitors ask their own questions directly.
Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, IHMEC’s vice president of education and exhibitions, said the new testimonies have proven to be very popular with museum visitors. The classroom is often full for the entire four hours each day and visitors and staff alike have been fascinated to learn the stories of local survivors through New Dimensions in Testimony.
“For our staff, docents and volunteers, it is incredibly meaningful to interact with the recordings of people who are so close to all of our hearts – we learn new things about them we haven’t heard and are so proud that their stories will live on in perpetuity,” she said.