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Dr. Steffi de Jong: Witness Auschwitz? How VR is changing Holocaust memory

Steffi de Jong

Steffi de Jong
Image Credit: Alexander Hulshof

News from Apr 16, 2021

In my paper, I will scrutinize the uses of virtual reality (VR) for Holocaust education and memory. In particular, I will analyze the new conceptions of what it means to be a witness of the Holocaust that such VR experiences entail. I will, first, look at the simulations of conversations between survivors and secondary witnesses. Such simulations have first been developed in the context of the USC Shoah Foundation’s project New Dimensions in Testimony Secondly, I will look at digital reconstructions of historical spaces and events. Thus, the VR experience Witness: Auschwitz wants to allow users to enter into the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp during the Second World War. I argue that such VR experiences herald a digital corporeal and affective phase of Holocaust memory in which, immersive technologies induce the users of the memorial medium to physically and emotionally feel present in a past reality by either being plunged into a digital reconstruction of a historical space or even by taking on the body of a historical person. As I will demonstrate, such uses tie in with a conception of VR as an “empathy machine” where empathy is understood as a mirroring of sensations and emotions that will lead to an improvement of the user’s ethical thinking and acting.

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