Empathy building is central to the IMS academic experience, and we continually ask ourselves how to foster it in authentic ways. Across our humanities disciplines, instruction extends beyond literature and historical texts; teachers strive to bring learning to life and make content relevant for students. And so, when our eighth graders studied the Holocaust in history and English classes, their learning was augmented by a virtual reality experience that became the ultimate empathy builder.
English Department Chair David Gargill believes that virtual reality is an “empathy machine.” He explains, “in an age where we experience things by proxy and through other mediums and screens, VR is the exact opposite. It brings content or an experience right into your life and almost tricks you into believing that you might have experienced it yourself.”
The somber reaction was ubiquitous for students and adults who experienced “The Last Goodbye,” a virtual reality tour that portrays the personal testimony of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter. During the 15-minute video, Gutter takes audiences with him on his final visit to Majdanek, the Nazi German concentration and extermination camp where his parents and sister were murdered during World War II.
Latin Teacher Jason Barillaro facilitated the experience in the Maker Space and shared, “as testimony to the empathy-inducing experience, students and adults finished the video in tears. Reactions included comments such as ‘I can’t believe what people are capable of doing to each other,’ or ‘that was so powerful.’”
Eighth grader Addie Kiggen noted that the virtual reality experience enhanced her comprehension of the material she learned in class. She remarked, “To be able to see how people in this concentration camp were killed, where they slept, and to hear Mr. Gutter’s story was so sad. Just watching how raw his emotions were after all these years…you could tell he had been through so much. This experience gave us a visual rather than just hearing about it—in the classroom you make up a mental picture in your mind and it was weird to be able to see it visually.”
The Last Goodbye was also timed perfectly with the eighth grade study of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, which illustrates Spiegelman’s conversations with his father about surviving the Holocaust as a Polish Jew.
The Last Goodbye, the first-ever Holocaust survivor testimony in room-scale VR, premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.