Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster dies but will live on in hologram exhibit

Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster, who died Wednesday at 86, made part of his life's work sharing his story. And now thanks to state-of-the-art technology, his storytelling will continue on at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.

Even though the Lincolnshire resident has died, Elster will still answer questions about his life, albeit in hologram form. Last year Elster, along with 12 other local Holocaust survivors, answered hundreds of questions over several days while being recorded from every angle. The footage was stitched together, using cutting-edge technology developed with the USC Shoah Foundation which hasn't been used anywhere else in the world, to create the holograms.

His digital form will occasionally be on stage at the 66-seat hologram theater, named the Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience, answering questions, so long as the question asked is one of the hundreds Elster was recorded responding to.

The survivors even had to provide answers to questions like "Did you ever meet Hitler?"

"I gave a wiseguy answer, and said, 'We didn't travel in the same neighborhoods,'" Elster said last fall.

Elster was born in 1933 in the small village of Sokolow, Poland, and lived there with his two sisters, mother and father until the Nazis came to the ghetto and had to flee to the countryside to avoid being placed in a concentration camp. Elster spent the final two years of World War II living in the attic of a Polish family. After the war, he lived in several orphanages, was eventually smuggled into West Germany and by 1947, came to the United States with his sister Irene.

He wrote a book about his experience called "I Still See Her Haunting Eyes: The Holocaust & a Hidden Child Named Aaron." The title of the book refers to the sad look in his little sister Sara's eyes when the Nazis came to their village.

Elster served in the armed forces during the Korean War and attained the rank of corporal. After a career in insurance, Elster committed himself to sharing his story, which he would tell time and time again throughout Chicago and the suburbs. He was long a part of the Illinois Holocaust Museum community and he worked to get the permanent museum built. He was the museum's vice president before his death.

While presenting at schools, Elster would challenge young people to explore their strengths, encourage them to be the master of their destiny and tell them that they have the power to change their world. In 2012, High School District 125 gave him the Heritage Award, honoring those who make a significant impact for his annual talks at Stevenson High School.

"The young people need to know what happened so when they see something wrong, they will stand up and stop it," Elster told the Daily Herald last year. "It gives me hope for the future."

At the unveiling of the hologram exhibit, Elster told the Daily Herald that with the number of Holocaust survivors dwindling, it was 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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  Holocaust survivor and Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center Vice President Aaron Elster discusses President Donald Trump's effort to impose a ban on people traveling from certain countries during a news conference in February 2017. Joe Lewnard/ February 2017
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