Haredi filmmakers bring Israelis to Auschwitz in virtual reality tour

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In an effort to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, three female Haredi filmmakers harnessed the power of virtual reality technology to produce a video tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland.

“Triumph of the Spirit” is narrated by Rabbi Israel Goldwasser, a Poland tour guide and Holocaust lecturer from the Gur Hasidic community. Through the use of VR goggles, he guides viewers through the gruesome realities of the largest Nazi concentration camp.

Miriam Cohen, Chani Kopilowitz and Yuti Neiman began working on the film after stumbling upon VR technology three years ago while producing a building tour video for a shared client.

Cohen, Kopilowitz and Neiman were all raised in Haredi communities and bonded after meeting in the film industry. They shared a sense of loss over being barred by their strictly religious schools and communities from visiting Poland as part of March of the Living, a program that brings Jewish high schoolers to Auschwitz-Birkenau on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s national Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“I remember myself at 17, watching all my friends go [to Poland] and coming back with this super powerful experience they had,” Cohen recalled. “I felt that I missed something very strong, and I promised myself that someday I would go.”

Israel’s Haredi community approaches Holocaust remembrance in a very different manner from most Israeli Jews. Rather than observing Yom HaShoah, most Haredim opt to mark the genocide of the Jews on the 10th of Tevet, a minor fast day.

Likewise, social mores in the ultra-Orthodox community mean it is less likely that parents would send teenage girls abroad on a school trip that, in the secular community at least, has become notorious for its unfortunate party atmosphere.

“Because the community is very conservative, I don’t see many parents that would let young girls go out of the country without them. It’s not something that would happen,” Cohen said of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox.

The women began working on the project at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when the three approached those more experienced with VR for help, they were told that long-form storytelling with VR is “throwing time and money in the trash,” and that they would be better off creating a shorter, more fun experience for viewers. They pushed forward with their idea regardless.

The VR headset and headphones used to view ‘Triumph of the Spirit.’ (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

After reaching out to one of the directors of the Auschwitz Museum, the three received permission to film at the site, despite its closure during the pandemic.

Cohen got a call from the museum soon after, telling her to be in Poland the next Monday and that she would be permitted to film at the memorial for only three days. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, she and her partners dropped everything and booked a flight to Ukraine, then traveled to Poland by car. Direct flights to Poland were unfeasible at the time due to the pandemic lockdown.

Chani Kopilowitz, Miriam Cohen and Yuti Neiman while filming at Auschwitz. (Courtesy of Triumph of the Spirit)

The expedited filming process was a difficult experience for all three. Cohen, who was pregnant at the time, recalled that the eerie silence was “the most painful thing.”

“There was a man with a big keychain, we went inside, and he shut the gate behind us,” Cohen said. “We found ourselves as three mothers, alone in this terrible place.”

In the film, Goldwasser clarifies the purpose of the virtual reality experience: “We are not tourists, we are mourners,” he says before entering through the main gate, which over a million Jews passed through during the Holocaust.

Chani Kopilowitz, Miriam Cohen and Yuti Neiman film Rabbi Israel Goldwasser during their three days spent at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial. (Courtesy of Triumph of the Spirit)

Goldwasser intersperses his explanations with occasional anecdotes detailing acts of Jewish resistance in the face of industrial genocide.

One such story describes the quiet rebellion of a Jewish doctor named Shmuel, who was forced to perform inhumane experiments to sterilize Jewish women. While operating, he took care not to cause any lasting harm that would prevent these women from eventually having children.

As of today, the movie has been shown to around 80,000 people including Israeli high schoolers, youth movement members and tourists coming from abroad. Although initially intended for Haredi youth, the film has reached a much broader audience with help from the Education Ministry.

“We’re in a period now where memory is changing to history, we’re losing survivors every day,” Cohen said. She hopes that the virtual reality experience will “put life into history, and change it into memory.”

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