Monday, January 26, 2009

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Living Memory: A Holocaust Survivor Speaks in Second Life

Mixed Reality Fanny Starr Left, Mrs. Fanny Starr; right, her daughter's avatar beneath a photo of Fanny as a young woman

Sometimes when Mrs. Fanny Starr of Colorado speaks about her time in Auschwitz and other horrors, waves of green light emit above her head, like a beacon. This is just a small part in the latest telling of a story she's recounted for many decades. The essential story remains unchanged, it's just the setting that does; sometimes she tells it in schools or civic centers or places of worship.  Or as it was last week, sometimes as a digital representation in 3D graphics, at a seaside theater that isn't real. 

Fanny Starr is a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust; last week, she turned 87.  She spent the last hours of her 86th in Second Life, with a VOIP microphone perched on her head, speaking to fifty or so Residents.  This was at the suggestion of her daughter, Helen, a multimedia producer who's known in Second Life as "Explorer Dastardly". Normally, her avatar looks like a young woman with fiery red hair, but when her mother takes over, Helen transforms Explorer into a dignified old woman dressed in old European finery.  (Had Fanny Starr remained in Poland and the Nazis never came, one wonders if she would now look like this avatar.)  Helen's mother has made it her life's mission to recount her experiences to as many people as will listen.  Extending her voice to Second Life, Helen tells me, is just another venue to do so.

The presentation happens in a collective setting, but with each member of the audience able to hear Mrs. Starr's voice as intimate as if she was sitting right beside them. Here's a small sample from her January 18th lecture, recounting the time she met SS physician Dr. Josef Mengele, who once had the decision of life or death over her and her family. (You may want to boost the volume, before viewing.)

"I did not have to convince her, I just asked," Helen tells me. "SL technology can reach a broad base of people in a small atmosphere, something a RL classroom cannot achieve."  Then there's another consideration, for a woman on the cusp of 90: "[S]he can lecture from the comforts of her home versus the classrooms she has lectured in for the last 30 years."

While Mrs. Starr speaks, Helen has prepared and uploaded a photo montage to run in the background. Some are from the general historical archive, others are more persona, photos smuggled by the family to the US; one shows Fanny Starr’s former home in Lodz, Poland; another shows her brother being burned alive by Heinrich Himmler. Another is of her husband Zesa Starr, posing with General Felix Sparks, the US Army officer who led the liberation of Dachau.

Helen and her mother plan to give other appearances in-world.  "Fanny will make another lecture appearace very soon," she tells me.  "Fanny is ready and is at ease in SL."  

Fanny Starr - Real Life Holocaust Survivors from GeoMeek on Vimeo

In the meantime, here's a video of the full January 18th lecture, recorded and edited by Geo Meek.  In it, you'll see Mrs. Starr speaking for an hour, taking many questions, some from audience members very young, and others quite close to her age.  A few ask questions that would probably be too painful or embarrassing to ask in person but are crucial all the same.  Others leave speechless, overcome.

"The responses are amazing," Fanny's daughter Helen tells me, "but the emotions outweigh the comments."

Photo of Fanny Starr by Helen Starr


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Well, the permalink to this post is going straight into my list of things to show people when they ask 'what is the point of SL'...

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