“Nostalgia,” Yogi Berra once quipped “isn’t what it used to be.” His insight probably referred to the ever-shifting ways we remember good experiences, but a recent development in Jewish life shows that the ways we remember tragedy can change just as much.
According to recent reports, a team of researchers at the University of Southern California is developing technology to create holograms of Holocaust survivors telling their stories and sharing their thoughts
The team is hard at work. Dozens of survivors have agreed to sit before an array of cameras, recount their experiences, and respond to about 100 likely audience questions. The recordings will be far more vivid than those of the 3D extravaganzas at today’s movie houses. Here, the images will appear not on a screen, but projected into real space, allowing the survivors to take a virtual seat at the table as they tell us their stories. Afterward, the loaded Q&A memory banks will allow survivors to offer Siri-like replies to follow-up questions. It will be as if R2-D2 were to open his hatch and reveal not a fictional 3D Obi Wan, but a real person telling real stories of a real time of utter darkness — Star Wars meets Yad Vashem.
Preserving the survivors’ stories is important, of course — we dare not forget the evil they witnessed. Still, this new technology begs some important questions: Why the gimmick? Will the three-dimensional versions of survivors’ recollections really be any more jarring or memorable than the two-dimensional ones? Will our ersatz “conversations” with the survivors succeed in conveying their stories more effectively than purely narrative accounts? Do we really think this futuristic technology can describe what happened any better than the technology we’ve already got?
Furthermore, while Holocaust survivors represent a disappearing Jewish world, there are other vanishing Jewish cultures, too. Has anyone considered holographically recording memories of Jewish life in Muslim lands? Or of small-town Jewish culture in the American South? Or of the tenement world of Jewish immigrants to New York? Certainly the Holocaust survivors faced evil that was far more systematic and horrific than the others, but in remembering our past, why is it that the memories we want to recall most vividly are precisely those that are the most horrifying?
The answer, I think — at least in part — is that even now, almost seven decades after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, we haven’t figured out how to remember the Holocaust. We live today in a golden, glittering age of Jewish culture, but a dark cloud of unanswered Holocaust questions still dims its brilliance: How? Why? Could it happen again? Are we Jews ever truly at home? Our family trees show branches that were abruptly lopped off in the 1940s, killing not only our aunts and uncles, but also the cousins we never had. What should be our response? Would any response be adequate? What, when it comes right down to it, does the Holocaust really mean?
We yearn for answers to these questions, but those we find are often pithy slogans rather than guiding truths. They leave us full of words, but ultimately speechless in our quest for understanding.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch once described the Holocaust as “a theological ‘black hole’ so dense that it fails to emit even a single ray of light.” We live in that darkness as we seek to remember, searching desperately but in vain for light and understanding.
And as our search continues, we realize the survivors — those who best help us remember — will soon be no more. We want to grasp their stories and never let go. And to do it, we’ll use every tool we’ve got — even high-tech cinematic wizardry.
The technology will certainly be awesome, and it’s important to record survivors’ recollections, whatever the format. But there is something sad about this attempt to vivify our memory of the Holocaust. We’re unable to grasp the magnitude of its loss; we insist on keeping its memory alive; we think adding a third spatial dimension will help us succeed.
Ultimately, the two-dimensional survivor-memories of page and screen are just as significant and vivid as the three-dimensional ones of modern technology. Holocaust holography is the kind of thing that happens when we undertake the daunting task of trying to remember the unfathomable. It is a high-tech stab at a profoundly spiritual monster.
Instead of focusing on whiz-bang technologies, let’s simply acknowledge the darkness and the fear we encounter as we confront the Holocaust. Maybe the Holocaust really is unfathomable. Maybe we never will fully grasp the enormity of our loss. And maybe our memory of it will fade as it recedes farther and farther into the past. Indeed, it probably will.
All we really can do is hear the stories, hoping that one day some light will emerge after all. We don’t need holograms. All we need are compassionate hearts, open minds, and a good dose of courage to continue listening despite the overwhelming bewilderment we face.