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Holocaust Museum using technology to preserve survivor testimonies

A conversation with a virtual holocaust survivor
Mary Wygodski, 96, holocaust survivor.
Posted at 11:28 PM, Oct 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-29 20:27:49-04

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Florida Holocaust Museum is using advanced technology to record survivor testimonies and preserve them in a way for the future no one has ever experienced before.

The idea for the Dimensions in Testimony project was started in 2010 by the USC Shoah Foundation. The first pilot interview was conducted with survivor Pinchas Gutter in 2014. Recently, the Florida Holocaust Museum recently opened a new exhibit featuring Gutter's virtual conversation.

The Florida Holocaust Museum also started its first round of interviews with local survivors for the project. Holocaust survivors Ed Herman, Helen Kahan, Betty Grebenschikoff, and Mary Wygodski agreed to be interviewed. They were each asked a thousand questions sitting for eight hours a day, five days a week. There isn't one word or adjective that feels right describing what they went through. Their stories are bone-chilling, terrifying, sad, inspirational, infuriating, and horrific all at the same time. How they survived is a question many continue to ask themselves well in their 90s.

ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska interviewed Wygodski in front of a boxcar at the museum. The hulking ominous structure is similar to the ones used to transport Wygodski from the ghetto in Poland to three different concentration camps. The 96-year old was sharp as a tack recalling memories from her past as if they happened yesterday.

LIFE BEFORE THE WAR

Wygodski was born as Mercia Tabachowicz in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnus, Lithuania) in 1925. She remembers a beautiful life with her family. The oldest child, she had a younger brother and two sisters, the youngest a baby born during the war.

"Well, I had a lovely family," Wygodski said. "A wonderful life in Vilna. And maybe this is the reason that we stayed on during the time since we heard that something may happen. But, my parents were very positive. My mother would always say, we survived the pogroms from Russia many years ago, we'll survive this too. And they ignored a lot of things that I think now about it; it's bothering me terribly."

According to the Holocaust Encylopedia, Pogrom is a Russian word meaning "to wreak havoc, demolish violently." Historically, the term refers to violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire and other countries.

As the Nazis became more violent and aggressive in the late 1930s, Wygodski said some of their family members became scared and decided to leave their homes behind.

"And they (her parents) were stunned that they left Vilna and went to Canada. They had a wonderful life here with a big business, and they liquidated everything they left," Wygodski said. And, I remember this was a tragedy for my family. How could they have done this? Left the place like this and go to Canada."

GHETTO

Wygodski said her family spent 2-years in the ghetto. Gradually, during that time, she said, men in the Vilna ghetto began to disappear. And rumors and tales of people getting executed in the forests of Ponary started to spread.

According to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Polish journalist who lived in the village of Ponary, witnessed and documented the murder of Jews and non-Jews in the nearby forest. Between July and December 1941, Lithuanian collaborators and Einsatzgruppen (Nazi mobile killing units) shot approximately 40,000 Jews into large pits in the Ponary forest.

The murder of Jews and non-Jews at Ponary was part of the Holocaust by Bullets, or "genocide by mass shooting." By July 1944, approximately 100,000 individuals were murdered at Ponary.

Other men were taken for work detail. Her uncle was one of the men told to bring a bar of soap and a towel to do manual labor. When her uncle returned, his family was gone.

"And this was a horrible feeling especially for my uncle which he went to work and when after work he came, and he didn't find his wife and his two daughters. A German company promised him, 'don't worry, we know where your wife is. We just took them just yesterday, and we will bring them back. We will bring them back together but, but I need money."

"So, my uncle gave him money as much as he wanted just give me them his family back, and he promised like this for the whole week," Wygodski said. "Each time, he would ask for more money, more money, but we know now, they were already dead."

At the liquidation of the ghetto, Mary was separated from her family, never to see them again.

"They took me by force out from my family. And I remember I fell and there was a train. And people they were pushing the people to the train," Wygodski said. "This is the time when I was separated from my family, but I was hoping that they would be going to a better place. Because there were mothers and children. Most of them were women and children. So, this was not the case, of course. But this is what we were told. So, this was a separation. This was the most horrible time for me as a family that I lost. But, I didn't really realize that I lost them for a while."

CONCENTRATION CAMPS

She was sent to three concentration camps: first to Riga-Kaiserwald, then Stutthoff, and Magdeburg. Finally, she was liberated by the American army.

At the camps, death surrounded her. She saw it with her eyes and felt it stinging her lungs.

"The smell of dead bodies was all over when we first came there," Wygodski said. "It was horrible. Bu,t this is something which they burn bodies all the time. In the streets, when we first came there, what we saw were bodies, and the sick, on both sides of the street. And they had a wagon and collected them and put them on one on top of the other. This is what we saw when we first came to this camp. You would never come out of there alive."

And whether you lived or died could be determined by what line you were told to stand in or sheer luck.

"There was this big place for showers. So, I said, 'oh gosh, well, I'm going on the line, I'll stand in line, and I have to have a shower.' And, I stood in line, and as I came to the door, the German said 'halt' no more room. I was so upset, terrified that I would come, and I couldn't get a shower," Wygodski said. What she found out later was horrifying.

"All the people before me that walked in were gassed," Wygodski said.

LIBERATION, A NEW LIFE, A NEW LOVE

After her liberation, Wygodski moved to Israel, where she met her husband, Morton Wygodski.

"And, he changed my life. A life that that is unbelievable. I have two wonderful children. I'm very grateful. So I believe that God did it all. And he watches over me now. Because he wants me to talk about all those things that I want to tell the world about."

In addition to her children, she has several grandchildren, a growing family that she tells her story to whenever she can.

She tells her story to stop hate, antisemitism, and the spread of lies by holocaust deniers. Her legacy is her family and her truth.

"It is a must to make sure that in the future there won't be deniers because it is so unbelievable. The story sounds unbelievable. It's easy to deny, easy to say it's a lie," Wygodski said. "I believe that God did it all. And he watches over me now. Because he wants me to talk about all those things that I want to tell the world about."

DIMENSIONS IN TESTIMONY

Sadly, we know, one day, there will no longer be any Holocaust survivors to tell their stories. Most are in their 80s and 90s.

Right now, you can hold a virtual 2-D conversation with a holocaust survivor asking them questions and receiving answers as though the person is right in front of you.

The USC Shoah Foundation explains that right now, "holograms, or 3-dimensional videos, do not yet exist. However, research and development is being done at a handful of institutions around the world to develop 3-dimensional video projection.

USC Shoah Foundation has worked with leaders in the field of 3-dimensional video capture, referred to as volumetric capture, to ensure that we are future-proofing our filming so that the Dimensions in Testimony interviews can be projected as holograms when that technology is available. USC Shoah Foundation developed and built one of the first-ever mobile volumetric capture filming rigs, with 23 4K cameras circling the interviewee in 360 degrees."

The interviews with the four local survivors will be ready later this year.