Holocaust survivors beamed into classrooms using virtual reality headsets

The Holocaust Educational Trust has created a new programme called ‘Testimony 360: People and Places of the Holocaust’


Students participating in a Testimony 360 lesson (Image: HET)

Holocaust survivors have long been the most important bulwark against fake news and conspiracy theories related to the Shoah. Now cutting-edge technology will ensure their stories live on, long after they have gone.

The Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) has created a new programme called “Testimony 360: People and Places of the Holocaust” to bring the story of the Shoah into the classroom in the most innovative of ways.

Four Holocaust survivors, each with quite different tales, have been filmed over five days answering all the questions inquisitive kids could throw at them, ranging from, “What happened to your family?” to “Do you like football?”

With the use of the newest AI technology, a child can then sit at a computer and ask any question they like of the Holocaust survivor and find the survivor answering as if in real time.

Gabriella Burton, a former history teacher and HET’s education officer. explained: “There is no replacement or substitute for hearing a survivor describing their testimony in person but as there are fewer of them, and they become ever frailer, we have had to think about options to help support schools with the teaching of the Holocaust.

“We call this interactive testimony and it allows young people to ask whatever questions they would like in personal format — it is the next best thing to interacting with a Holocaust survivor.

‘We spent some time working with children to find out what they would ask a survivor. We cover their life before the war, life during it and life after it but there is a really large range of questions.”

It is envisaged the testimony will be presented in two-hour sessions with some other technology which is just as impressive; virtual reality (VR) sets which will take the children into the world the Holocaust survivor has described; from the camp they were sent to, to their family home.

For each survivor, there was six weeks of filming to ensure as much detail of their story could be filmed in a way that enables a child to look from side to side and even behind them through the VR set. There are also interactive elements where simply using their gaze, a viewer can latch on to an element of the story and see documents, books and people who are part of the survivor’s story.

The VR set provides not only an immersion into the world of the Holocaust survivor but also makes it a genuinely exciting way to be taught. ‘When we are learning about a survivor’s life, we don’t just see a historical photo but we go to that town, see it at a 360-degree angle and can see close up photos of some of their family members,’ added Gabriella. ‘We are mindful not to use tech for the sake of it but to enhance learning. The educator works with the children so that they have their own engagement with the Holocaust survivor’s story; they put together a puzzle of this person’s life which builds as the sessions goes on.’

The programme, aimed at teenagers, will launch in schools in September. The experience of seeing a survivor answer your question, and then see the camp they were sent to, is incredibly touching and heralds a new way to teach about the Holocaust at a time when it could not be needed more.

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