The lesson of history & hate: Is Holocaust 1.0 the new Holocaust education?

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By usawebstories

Holocaust awareness does not equate to Holocaust education, which is why the online video game Fortnite’s decision to introduce a virtual Holocaust museum called “Voices of the Forgotten,” is initially intriguing but it ultimately requires one to be wary of its impact. 

The intention to make Holocaust education accessible to millions worldwide — through technology — including the 80% of Americans who’ve never visited a Holocaust museum — is commendable.

One must applaud Montana Tucker for her TikTok campaign virtually bringing her 8.5 million followers to Auschwitz. Her audience likely includes the staggering statistic of two-thirds of American millennials who don’t know about the Auschwitz death camp.

AP Photo

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing as they were liberated from the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland by Russian soldiers in April, 1945.

The University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation created “Dimensions in Testimony” — holograms of Holocaust survivors that serve as interactive biographies allowing museum visitors to ask questions and to learn from listening to survivors’ testimonies. We will deeply rely on this technology and other means to learn about the Holocaust when the last survivors are no longer with us.

There is also genuine admiration for Luke Bernard, the mastermind behind Fortnite’s virtual Holocaust museum, for seeking ways to reach more Americans about the horror of Kristallnact, or “the Night of Broken Glass,” the Nazi regime’s organized night of violence against the Jewish community that violently looted the businesses of Jewish owners, burned synagogues and arrested thousands.

Yet this recent Fortnite digital effort to present the Holocaust begs the question. 

Could a seasoned gamer whose only connection to the Holocaust is a visit to “Voices of the Forgotten” truly fathom the doomed heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the unimaginable anguish of one million lives lost in Auschwitz, or the haunting tragedy of Babi Yar?

Would they emerge from the virtual exhibit, and continue an afternoon of gaming with their comprehension of humanity’s darkest juncture scarcely altered? Could anything about their perception, understanding, and internalization of this catastrophic chapter be deepened by visiting a virtual Holocaust museum, perhaps in Spider-Man attire beside fellow superheroes, just a temporary stop in their digital journey?

With the best of intentions, Fortnite ushers in a new educational experience that is a mouse click away, just one more app for a generation that already views with casual disdain last month’s popular online destination. However, for our younger generation, this encapsulates the essence of modern education — virtual, swift, constantly engaging, and nestled in their digital habitat. Against this reality, the Holocaust educator cannot help but pose some disquieting queries.

FILE - This Oct. 19, 2012 file photo shows the entrance of Auschwitz at the former Nazi German death complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau in in Oswiecim, Poland. The memorial museum is asking Germans and Austrians to donate private letters, memoirs, photos and any other items that could help historians better understand the mentality of the Holocaust's perpetrators. The museum said Wednesday, Jan 18, 2017, it seeks "to better understand the influence of populist mechanisms of hatred for human beings." (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File)

AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

This Oct. 19, 2012 file photo shows the entrance of Auschwitz at the former Nazi German death complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau in in Oswiecim, Poland.

In our digital age of enlightenment, this author finds himself wondering about what truly lies beneath the surface of this online experience. Is the information gained merely a shallow awareness or a deep understanding? If the former, how do we promote the recognition of the need for depth? If the latter, how is that understanding made manifest and shared? And if these newly informed scholars can’t answer the “why and how did this happen,” can they appreciate how bigotry, prejudice, and hatred lead to the gates of the death camps?

Have they read or listened to the stories of Holocaust survivors, or perhaps more realistically, have they met the children or grandchildren of survivors? Have they explored the history of antisemitism and how it has cast a shadow on more than one continent? And during their virtual journeys, have they taken a moment to think about the people who committed these still unfathomable atrocities, and to recognize the humanity and bravery of those who chose not to stand by silently? 

In this captivating era of immersive visuals and technology, the challenge is to ensure that the dazzle of digital innovation doesn’t hide the real core of learning — facts, understanding, compassion, thinking deeply, and becoming involved in meaningful ways. As we navigate this complex landscape, we’re responsible for making sure that awareness isn’t just superficial recognition. Instead, it should encourage profound understanding and a long-lasting commitment to learning from history’s teachings.

Even in the wake of education’s digital transformation in a post-pandemic era, we need to seek wisdom gained from experience, and the irreplaceable need for human connections.

As the descendant of Holocaust survivors, the phrase “Never Again” has been etched into this author’s very being. In a distressing climate of rising antisemitism and the inevitable decline of survivors, those of us who carry their legacy understand that upholding “Never Again” requires us to recognize the enormous changes shaping how a new generation is “downloading” their definition of reality, both past and present. As a result, the convergence of virtual reality and the shattering history offered as “The Holocaust 1.0” demands careful consideration and thoughtful action.

Pilnik is the director of Yeshiva University’s Emil and Jenny A. Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

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