Crane your neck way, way back and witness noxious black smoke pouring out of the crematorium. Turn to the right and see the frail, the young and the elderly in line for selection. With a slight pivot to the left, narrator, historian and researcher Rabbi Israel Goldwasser appears, feet away from your perch.
Absent the violence and raw photos that are central to other Holocaust recreations, “Triumph of the Spirit” gently places you in the center of Krakow, Auschwitz and Birkenau, using word pictures, music and the eerily empty concentration camp grounds.
While it isn’t what you might imagine when you envision virtual reality, three haredi women with 23 children between them, director Miriam Cohen and producers Chani Kopilowitz and Yuti Neiman, use the media to immerse the viewer into the Holocaust experience in a manner that breathes new life into a painful subject and makes it real for generations who may never meet a Shoah survivor.
“I lived in Hashmonaim [midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv] but I never went on the March of the Living because I went to a haredi seminary [girls high school],” Cohen explains. “In the haredi community the Shoah is not taught and there is no internet. I saw others my age going to visit Poland and coming back immeasurably changed by the experience. I wanted to recreate it for those who may not ever get to go.”
Religious female directors
Cohen was born in Montreal and immigrated to Israel at a young age. Committed to her religious ideology and attending an all girls’ seminary, she wanted to be an actress and found a way to star in numerous productions—by girls and for girls. After that she honed her craft and learned to make movies.
“When I realized that there were practically no religious female directors, I decided to become one,” Cohen says. Desperate to learn, she enlisted the one well-known such film director she could find, Rama Burshtein, best known for her 2012 film “Fill the Void,” to create courses for budding haredi female filmmakers.
“After the first course, the seven or so of us enrolled begged her for more, so she taught another course, and then another.”
She met Gerrer Chassid Neiman and Slonim Chassid Kopilowitz while working as an actress. The latter had worked as a dresser on Burshtein’s film.
In addition to learning herself, Cohen teaches aspiring female filmmakers as well. She has directed 15 movies and acted in many productions for women and girls. While she had the skills to try and make her Holocaust film work, she asked herself, “What’s the best tool to bring the experience to life?”
She recalls “bumping into” virtual reality technology four years ago and knowing nothing about the format, so she began to explore by asking people who use it. They responded, “Keep it short and make it fun—like video games or cartoons.”
But Cohen had no intention of making a short, “fun” Holocaust film. Her mission was to make a feature film that makes the Shoah “come alive” as it were, to be able to highlight the pain and, ultimately, the hope of the Jewish people for Jews and non-Jews from many backgrounds.
They bought a VR camera and began testing the “six eye camera” around familiar Israeli sites.
The trio enlisted Goldwasser, whose grandparents had been in the camps. His telephone podcasts and stories are famous in the haredi and the Chassidic world.
Their next stop was Yad Vashem and, while they got kudos for the idea, they were told that the museum could not help them with financing, nor could it get them entry to film at Auschwitz and Birkenau. But that is where they had to go, and so Cohen made phone calls.
Permission to film
The initial response was discouraging. Even Steven Spielberg didn’t get permission to film there. But Cohen pleaded, explaining how the new technology would bring the subject to entirely new audiences. The contact at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum said they would discuss it at a board meeting.
The producers decided that there was nothing left to do except lift their eyes to the Heavens. Cohen called her father in a state of stress, asking him what she should do.
“I’m Moroccan, so I lit a candle,” she says. The other women whispered psalms as they waited for the verdict.
The call finally came; they were given three days in which the premises would be exclusively theirs to film. Then they had to battle with COVID-19 restrictions. Poland, a four-hour flight from Israel, turned into a 27-hour trip for the film crew as flights kept getting canceled.
“We threw a lot of plane tickets in the garbage but eventually a man with a big keychain stood at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and let us in.”
“The silence was eerily oppressive but our goal to bring strength and to tell the story with hope got us through,” Cohen says. “We have had 80,000 viewings in our first year and hope to have many more.”
They hope to export its virtual tours and 3D gear to cities throughout the world.
“This must be spread all over. Although it has a Jewish focus, the story is for everyone,” says Rabbi Avraham Kaminar, who is helping to raise funds for the project.
And spreading the story they are, taking their 200 headsets to schools, communities and high-tech companies all over Israel. They did a tour in London and will be coming to Manchester soon. They hope to follow up with tours throughout the U.S., for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Begins in Krakow
The film begins in Krakow, in what was once a vibrant Jewish and Chassidic community, home of the Rema, Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572).
Goldwasser takes the viewer past the synagogues and homes and brings his stories to the still-preserved Jewish cemetery.
“People who come here are not tourists,” he explains. “They are mourners.”
Soon he stands on the familiar train tracks that lead to Auschwitz, relating vignettes and explaining what happened here.
The filmmaker mastered the 360-degree format, using camera angles and devices that are exclusive to VR. While the cattle car is not moving, a drone shot advances on the camp with the ambient sound of people crowded into one of the 1,500-foot-long trains.
“There were three trains each day,” Goldwasser says. “That brought 18,000 Jews each day to Auschwitz.”
Yad Vashem cutaways of the mounds of shoes are integrated into the solitary scenery. Photos are projected onto the stationary cattle car. Camera angles bring the viewer close to the ground, where he can look up into the barracks or into the eyes of the narrator.
One of the most poignant moments comes when Goldwasser sets the scene in the crematorium, where he describes Jewish musicians playing in an orchestra outside as huddled masses shuffled into the now-crumbled gas chamber. He explains they are told to undress and tie their shoes together and to remember their number so they can find their belongings when they emerge. Which of course, they never will.
As a door swings shuts in a barren chamber, the camera cuts to piles of empty cans of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide the Nazis and their helpers used, and a diorama from Yad Vashem projected on the gas chamber ruins. And then there is the looming smokestack and the viewer looks up, watching dust and ashes in the black and white sky.
Watching a virtual reality movie is a solitary experience. You have a headset on your ears and goggles on your eyes and you become unaware of anything and anyone around you.
Being surrounded by nothing but the sights and sounds of the Holocaust settings makes the experience more intense than other films on the subject. Organizations can arrange to bring the VR movie into their schools and synagogues, and group or single viewings can be purchased online through the Time Elevator theater at the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem.
Kenneth Rochlin, head of Institutional Advancement at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, and his brother Josh, vice president for corporate development at LiveVox, participated in the tour.
“Having been to Auschwitz three times, the emotion from within was very powerful,” Kenneth Rochlin says. “The music and the narrative were beautifully done.”
How did these filmmakers manage to make a barren place of death come alive?
“The storytelling is the technology,” says Cohen. “My big dream is to have a base with 400 headsets and take it all over the United States.”