​​From the Winter 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

Chicagoans are fortunate to have access to great world class learning centers and historical museums presenting exhibitions and programming that allow us to explore artifacts and ephemera speaking from the distant past, informing on the world around us, our history and beyond. But imagine being able to speak one-on-one with those who experienced that history firsthand, hearing their stories, connecting with them visually, perceiving the emotion in their words, their expressions, body language, all deepening the impact of the learning experience. This is all part of the concept of oral tradition. That tradition has been the foundation of historical education since the beginning of time. Generation after generation passing down personal histories through oral storytelling conveys not merely facts and circumstances but also the magnitude and weight of the lessons learned. The art of oral storytelling has suffered significantly over the past half-century with the advance of technology. But today, technology has given oral tradition a significant boost with the launch of the bold new Take a Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.

A powerfully immersive new permanent exhibition launched this fall, Take a Stand Center propels the museum’s forward-looking mission to be a catalyst for social justice with new three-dimensional technology that accesses oral-storytelling as a mechanism to inspire and enable change. According to a museum statement announcing the new exhibition, the Take a Stand Center was created to “move visitors from Knowledge to Inspiration to Action.” With the new 4,000-square-foot center, comprised of three unique and interactive galleries, Illinois Holocaust Museum becomes the first institution in the world to employ ground-breaking, interactive, three-dimensional technology to tell powerful Holocaust survivor stories in an incredibly life-like way.

The technology, developed by USC Shoah Foundation’s New Dimensions in Testimony program, combines high-definition holographic interview recordings with voice recognition technology giving survivors a powerful platform to tell their deeply moving stories and then respond to questions from the audience, inviting one-on-one “conversation.”

It’s a breathtakingly visceral experience that opens the door to generations benefiting directly from the personal experiences of survivors and with powerful one-on-one knowledge exchange. Not limited to written biography or anecdote, or ephemera and artifact, the new Take a Stand Center creates a new dimension in museum learning that offers unprecedented impact.

​The new permanent exhibition emerged to meet the vital need to preserve the stories and the first-person experiences of Holocaust survivors for future generations. Illinois Holocaust Museum CEO Susan Abram explained, “With the aging of our cherished Holocaust survivors, it became a moral imperative to find innovative ways to tell survivor stories impactfully for generations to come. Currently, over 50,000 students and educators and our many public visitors have the opportunity to hear personal testimony from survivor speakers. Studies show that world-class exhibitions and award-winning documentaries are powerful ways to reach audiences, but there is no substitute for hearing directly from another human being; the ability to hear personal stories and ask questions of survivors helps our visitors to develop empathy and understanding of our common humanity. We decided to pursue the high-tech route for recording these stories to preserve the face-to-face interactivity that is so vital to the human experience.

“Through the Take a Stand Center, we deliver on both remembering the past and transforming the future through the center’s three galleries. The exhibition broadens from the Holocaust to illustrate how individuals and organizations are working successfully to strengthen our world in the areas of civil, social, economic and environmental rights. Through these examples, which highlight historical and present-day figures, youth and adults, and famous and lesser-known activists who have made a significant impact, our visitors are empowered to take action to effect change.”

In the capturing of survivors’ stories, the museum’s 66-seat Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience addresses the challenge of preserving their firsthand narratives for future generations.

Years from now, long after the last survivor has passed on, the New Dimensions in Testimony program will provide a path to enable young people to listen to a survivor and ask their own questions, essentially advancing the age-old tradition of passing down lessons through oral storytelling, but with the latest technologies available.

​Thirteen Holocaust survivors from around the world have participated in the rigorous recording process that yielded the three-dimensional holographic experience museum-goers have access to today. They include seven from Chicagoland, members of the Illinois Holocaust Speaker’s Bureau: Aaron Elster (Lincolnshire), Fritzie Fritzshall (Buffalo Grove), Sam Harris (Kildeer), Janine Oberrotman (Lincolnwood), Adina Sella (Chicago), Israel Starck (Chicago) and Matus Stolov (Evanston).

They tell haunting stories of courage and terror striving day to day, moment by moment to survive one of the most horrific assaults on humanity we have seen in a millennia. Some faced certain death like Czech-born Fritzie Fritzhall, who was liberated during the last days of the war from Auschwitz—Birkenau extermination camp; others like Aaron Elster took refuge in hiding spaces, living day to day with the almost unimaginable terror that they would one day be found and liquidated or deported to concentration camps. Each give powerful testimony to the strength and the courage it took to endure, to live, and today, to share their stories with future generations to come.

After visitors make their way through the Survivor Stories Experience, the Goodman Upstander Gallery furthers the impact of the exhibition with an interactive exploration of 40 historical and contemporary personalities the museum calls Upstanders—everyday individuals who have fought against injustice and stood up for worthy causes, from education and equal rights to economic opportunities, safe communities, health and the environment. Life-size Story Portals allow visitors to interact with digital accounts of each of these Upstanders, enabling visitors to put themselves squarely in the shoes of present-day heroes and, hopefully, come away inspired to create positive change in the world.

Chosen with input from numerous advisory groups—including local community leaders, academics, educators, high school students, and Illinois Holocaust Museum board members—the Upstanders include historic leaders like Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, and Jane Addams; artists and athletes like Chicago’s Theaster Gates and Carli Lloyd; advocates like Malala Yousafzai; and 12-year-old Marley Dias, who raises awareness of the need for diversity in children’s literature, reminding us that we all have the power to make a positive impact at any age.

​The Take a Stand Lab will then put the power of change in visitors’ own hands with a variety of exhibition aides that help them get involved and make their voices heard. The lab’s features include an interactive media kiosk illustrating how to take action on issues of importance to the visitor through raising awareness, giving, advocating and participating; Success Story flip books sharing stories and strategies of individuals and organizations that have taken a stand and made a positive difference in their communities; and a Leave-A-Pledge Interactive, enabling visitors to pledge to make a difference in their area of passion.

​Augmenting the three primary galleries will be the Act of Art Gallery expanding the Take a Stand Center journey by highlighting art as a powerful form of social action and activism. The gallery, comprised of the museum’s fine art collection and curated for the Take a Stand Center, includes pieces that explore significant historical events from the lens of the artists and the messages they want to convey.For the museum, the new permanent exhibit is a startling leap forward. Culminating the experience in a powerful call-to-action grows the museum’s mission of leading visitors from “Knowledge to Inspiration to Action,” and the visceral impact of 3-D hologram enabled survivor stories leaves such an indelible mark on those who visit that there is little doubt that call will often go unanswered. Said Illinois Holocaust Museum CEO Susan Abrams, “The opening of the Take a Stand Center is a major milestone not only for our museum and the Midwest, but for our world. Our…team is proud to be leading the way in using the history and lessons of the Holocaust and the inspiration of Upstanders, to equip our community, teachers, students, and the public to take a stand for humanity.”

CURATOR'S CORNER: Taking a Stand

Inside the groundbreaking Illinois Holocaust Museum exhibition that employs 3-D holographic technology to preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors for generations to come

By Isaac Jacobs


Take a Stand Center audience watching Fritzie Fritzhall hologram tell her story of survival during the Holocaust  (photo courtesy of Illinois Holocaust Museum).