As holograms, 13 local Holocaust survivors blink, breathe and tell their stories

After a short video about how Aaron Elster survived the Holocaust, a life-size, 3-D hologram of the 86-year-old Lincolnshire man appears at the front of the room.

His high-resolution image is blinking, breathing and sitting in a chair. The moderator asks the audience if anyone has questions for him. It could be anything - how'd he pass the time living alone in an attic for two years, hiding from the Nazis? What's his favorite color? Did he ever try, later in life, to find the woman who helped him?

The hologram will answer them all. Using the voice command, it can have Elster answer 2,000 different questions about his story.

This cutting-edge storytelling technology, which hasn't been used anywhere else in the world, is the centerpiece of the new, multimillion dollar Take a Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. It opens to the public Oct. 29.

The Take a Stand Center brings the stories of Elster and 12 other Chicago-area Holocaust survivors to life in a unique and engaging way, and then bridges those lessons about hatred, prejudice and indifference into modern times.

While many Holocaust survivors have told their stories on video, this is a completely different experience, said museum CEO Susan Abrams, who spearheaded the project.

“You develop empathy from human interaction,” she said. “And you learn best by actually doing something, and engaging.”

  A holographic image of Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster of Lincolnshire answers a question from the audience in the new Take A Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. Gilbert R. Boucher II/

For the hologram project, Elster and the other 12 local Holocaust survivors - including Buffalo Grove resident Fritzie Fritzshall and Kildeer resident Samuel R. Harris - each spent five days sitting in a chair in front of a camera.

They had to wear the same clothes each day and answer 2,000 questions, often repeating their answers. They even had to provide answers to ridiculous questions, like “Did you ever meet Hitler?” just so the hologram version of themselves could respond.

“I gave a wiseguy answer, and said, 'We didn't travel in the same neighborhoods,'” Elster said.

Besides the 66-seat hologram theater, named the Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience, the Take a Stand Center has two other interactive galleries filled with large touch-screen displays. They encourage visitors to “take a stand” for humanity on a variety of causes.

People tour the new Upstander Gallery, part of the multimillion dollar Take a Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. Photo courtesy of the Illinois Holocaust Museum

The exhibit profiles “Upstanders” of all religions and races, both famous and unknown, including Nelson Mandela and Billie Jean King. It concludes with art displays and more touch-screens where visitors select issues that are important to them, like equality, education or the environment, and see suggestions and ideas on how they can take action. They can even email themselves a “tool kit.”

So rather than just leaving the Holocaust museum with the “Never again” message, visitors at the Take a Stand Center depart with resources on how to make a difference in the world today.

“It's absolutely necessary for us to do this,” Elster said. “The young people need to know what happened, so when they see something wrong, they will stand up and stop it. It gives me hope for the future.”

  The new Take A Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie profiles "Upstanders" of all religions and races, both famous and unknown. Gilbert R. Boucher II/

With the number of Holocaust survivors dwindling, Elster said it's important to make sure their stories live on.

“Our fear, as survivors, is when we're gone, what happens? Is it going to be one paragraph in a history book that says 'Jews were killed'? I look at this as a legacy that we're going to leave as survivors,” Elster said. “In a sense, we're going to be able to live on.”

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Illinois Holocaust Museum's new Take a Stand exhibit

What: The new Take a Stand Center, featuring interactive holograms of 13 local Holocaust survivors.

When: The permanent exhibit opens Sunday, Oct. 29

Where: Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie

Admission: $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, $8 for students and $6 for children. The theater experience and other activities are free with museum admission. Reservations for the theater experience are highly recommended.


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