Never forget

Virtual reality Auschwitz documentary looks to tell the religious story of the Holocaust

‘Triumph of the Spirit’ is not just a recounting of World War II, but looks to ‘uplift’ the viewer, one of its creators says

Only Pope Francis had ever walked through Auschwitz alone before. Not even Steven Spielberg – at the height of his powers in the mid-1990s – was allowed to film inside the Nazi concentration camp for his film “Schindler’s List.”

But that’s what Haredi filmmakers Miriam Cohen, Chani Kopilowitz and Yuti Neiman wanted to do – to film a 50-minute, 360-degree, virtual reality guided tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Approximately four years ago, they learned about VR-filmmaking and became convinced that this was the way to educate people – “Jews in general and ‘believing Jews’ specifically,” as Cohen phrased it – about the Holocaust. (They are now working to adapt the film to non-Jewish audiences as well.)

The film is entitled “Triumph of the Spirit.” It has already been seen by upwards of 90,000 people, either in privately arranged viewings of up to 200 people or in the basement of Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall, where anyone over the age of 15 can buy a ticket to see it. It is available in Hebrew and English.

Cohen grew up in the Haredi community of the Hashmona’im settlement between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where she enviously watched her non-Haredi peers traveling to Poland with their high schools. “Everyone goes on a trip to Poland. It’s not even a question, and when the kids came back, I remember seeing them after they went through such a significant experience, and I just felt that I missed something serious,” Cohen told eJewishPhilanthropy

While most secular and national-religious high schools in Israel take students to Poland to learn about the Holocaust, this practice is almost unheard of in Haredi schools for both logistical and ideological reasons. Cohen said she and her partners felt that just because Haredi students and Haredi Jews in general wouldn’t travel to Poland, shouldn’t mean that they can’t learn about the Holocaust in an immersive way.

“Everyone told us it was a mistake. They said, ‘No one is going to sit there with those glasses on their heads for an hour. You can’t make a full-length documentary with VR. VR is for gaming, applications, avatars. Maybe you should make a “Catch the Nazi” app,’” Cohen told eJP. “When we heard that, we realized that no one understood our vision.”

Going it alone, they learned to use the VR equipment and started looking into what it would take to film inside Auschwitz. They quickly realized that this would be the hardest part. This was in early 2020, just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when air travel was limited and Auschwitz-Birkenau was closed to visitors. They reached out to Yad Vashem, the Polish Embassy in Israel and other Holocaust memorial organizations for help. “They all told us Auschwitz-Birkenau is such a big bureaucracy… Steven Spielberg didn’t get permission – who are you?” Cohen said.

“As a believing person, when all the doors seemed to close in our faces, the only thing I could do is to look up and say, ‘Creator of the World, help me!’ and pray for it,” she said.

They eventually got the phone number of a woman from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum who organized a special meeting of the institution’s board to consider their request. At the end of the meeting, four and a half hours later, the woman called Cohen. “She said, ‘I just got out of the meeting. I fought for you. You can come next Monday. The museum will be open only for you for three days.’ Crazy! It was a miracle,” she said.

“Throughout this project, I have always said that I have six million souls pushing me forward,” Cohen added.

Getting to Poland in time proved to be its own struggle. This was in May 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, so multiple flights that they’d booked to Poland were canceled, but they eventually made it, the three Haredi filmmakers and the guide for the video, Rabbi Yisrael Goldwasser, a member of the Ger Hasidic community, the grandson of four Holocaust survivors and a Holocaust researcher.

It was Cohen’s first time in Auschwitz, realizing the dream she’d had since high school. “I didn’t know that when I would go, I would be taking tens of thousands of people with me,” she said.

The film has mostly been available only in Israel, but earlier this year, it was also shown in the United Kingdom, where it was screened at the House of Lords. Though the film was made by and for religious Jews, Cohen said they have shown it to all types of Jews, as well as groups of non-Jews, who have praised it.

Cohen said she has received multiple requests to show the film in North America as well, but that they require funding to do so. “Getting into the U.S. takes a lot of money,” she said.

In addition to developing the concept of the VR film by themselves, Cohen and Kopilowitz also funded the project almost entirely on their own, putting in their savings and getting loans from friends and family. (The Maimonides Fund, whose logo appears at the beginning of the film, helped fund the screening in the U.K., Cohen said.)

“People think that the Holocaust is something that there’s always funding for, but what happened was we got permission to film [in Auschwitz] so suddenly that we just had to take loans from cousins, friends, parents and family. And then once we did it, we just wanted to get the movie out, so we took more loans,” she said. “Now we are looking to return that money.”

The documentary begins before the Holocaust, exploring the religious Jewish history of Krakow, Poland, with a tour of the city’s Jewish quarter and its Old and New Synagogues. Before entering Auschwitz, Goldwasser tells the viewers that they are not “tourists” but are instead “mourners,” paying their respects to the victims of the Nazis.

The documentary is not a value-neutral, factual recounting of the events of the Holocaust. Cohen said the movie is geared toward religious Jews, considers their sensitivities and needs, and has a hopeful religious message. “It’s not graphic at all. There are no difficult images,” she said.

Cohen, who was pregnant when they were filming, said that being in Auschwitz was incredibly difficult for them. “It shattered us to pieces. We didn’t think that we’d be able to work. We could barely stand. What gave us the strength to continue was the desire to tell this story in a way that gives strength, a way that gives hope,” she said.

Goldwasser fills the 50 minutes of the film with anecdotes and stories, sometimes assisted by survivors’ own testimonies, which can be seen on screens that pop up inside the video. All of these stories have a hopeful, if not happy, ending and often a religious bent. The boy who plans to kill himself by throwing himself onto an electric fence but stops when he hears other Auschwitz inmates singing the Hanukkah song “Maoz Tzur”; the man who was killed for running back to a train car to retrieve his tallit and tefillin, whose son survived and purchased such a train car for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, putting inside a tallit and tefillin in memory of his father; the woman who was meant to undergo a surgery that would make her infertile as part of an experiment by Nazi scientist Josef Mengele but who was secretly spared by a Jewish doctor who only pretended to perform the operation.

“There are no stories that don’t have a light at the end of the tunnel. Our goal was not to destroy the viewer – the opposite. Our goal was to tell the story, with all the pain in it, but in a way that is uplifting and full of spirit. That’s why we called it, ‘Triumph of the Spirit,’” she said.