Victim or executioner? Let the computer decide

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Victim or executioner? Let the computer decide
Tombstones from a former Jewish cemetery near the site of the planned Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, where, in September 1941, the Nazis shot tens of thousands of Jews, Roma, Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war, patients from psychiatric hospitals and others, May 5, 2020. An interactive plan for the memorial center that envisions sorting visitors into victims, executioners and collaborators has ignited a firestorm of criticism. Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times.

by Andrew E. Kramer and Maria Varenikova

MOSCOW (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

After you arrived and bought tickets at the newly renovated Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, Ukraine, you would fill out a questionnaire and take a psychological test while a computer harvested social media data.

A computer algorithm would then digest the information and assign you to one of multiple categories, including executioners, collaborators or victims, and tailor your experience accordingly, a presentation on the proposed museum said.

The brainchild of a Moscow filmmaker known for his embrace of immersive theater and role-playing, Ilya A. Khrzhanovsky, the plan was designed to avoid a “one size fits all museum visit,” as the presentation suggested brightly.

Whether or not it would accomplish that, it has already ignited a firestorm of criticism over the planned overhaul of the center, due to open in 2025 at a site where the Nazis shot tens of thousands of Jews, Roma, Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war, patients from psychiatric hospitals and others.

The site, an eerie, forested ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv, was left largely untouched by the Soviets as an outdoor memorial. In the postwar years, the city grew around it, leaving amid the apartment blocks and busy streets an island of trees with a terrible history.

On a recent day, a pale spring sunshine filtered through the canopy, over ground crisscrossed with the trails of mountain bikers.

Even in the 1940s, the woods were close to the ordinary bustle of the city, as they are today. The center notes that during the genocide on the Eastern Front, Jews were often killed near their homes rather than moved to death camps.

In September 1941, posters went up in Kyiv ordering Jews to gather at the corner of Melnykova and Dehtyarivska streets, close enough to Babyn Yar that their last journey was by foot. Local auxiliary police helped the Nazis. Many witnesses saw the columns of people pass.

If Khrzhanovsky’s plan goes ahead, the computers would direct visitors to the center into one of multiple paths through the labyrinthine floor plan of the exhibit. They would then witness the horror of Babyn Yar as participants in an “interactive, role-based experience.”

Visitors would be led down blacked-out corridors by “blind guides,” according to the presentation. A space where visitors might wear virtual reality goggles would offer varied experiences of being “victims, collaborators, Nazis and prisoners of war who had to burn corpses, among others.”

So-called deep fake technology might show video reenactments of the horror with the visitors’ own faces pasted onto characters in the scenes. The presentation notes the technology is used to create “fake celebrity pornographic videos” but might be repurposed for Holocaust remembrance.

At the end, visitors might receive a report on their profile, the presentation suggests.

All in all, the presentation suggests, a visit would become “a challenging and sometimes shocking emotional journey with ethical choices at its core.”

Khrzhanovsky revealed the plan for the museum, which will cost $100 million, last fall but, perhaps out of stunned disbelief, the critics did not begin to find their voice until this spring.

“How can these plans be appropriate in dealing with the Holocaust and at a former Holocaust site?” Karel Berkhoff, an historian at the Institute of War, Holocaust and Genocides in Amsterdam and a former chief historian for the project, wrote in a resignation letter. “Where is the sensitivity and restraint?”

Many of the people working on the project subsequently quit. Dozens of Ukrainian writers, historians, artists and other cultural figures signed an open letter of protest April 29, objecting to what they called “forms of immersive involvement in a virtual reality reconstruction of the Holocaust, and the gamification of death.”

The project, begun in 2016, coincides with Russia’s now six-year-long military incursion in Ukraine, which the Kremlin has justified by accusing Ukrainians of sympathizing with fascism.

Adding to the uproar, in a virulently anti-Russian country, the project has taken million-dollar donations from Russian oligarchs, putting them ultimately in charge of the delicate decisions about commemorating the Holocaust and portraying collaboration in wartime Ukraine.

In a telephone interview, Khrzhanovsky defended the project as updating Holocaust commemoration and said he was hired after meeting with one such donor, Mikhail Fridman, a Russian oil tycoon.

Natan Sharansky, the one-time Soviet dissident and a former deputy prime minister of Israel, who is serving as the chairman of the board of the Babyn Yar memorial project, told the Ukrainian news media that Khrzhanovsky would retain his position as artistic director but that his concept has not yet been either approved or rejected.

For the Holocaust memorial, Khrzhanovsky defended the digital technologies and role playing. The presentation was intended to open a discussion about concepts, he said, not show final exhibit plans.

Profiling visitors, he said, could have many uses. A visitor, for example, might be shown the story of a victim of a similar age and profession, to bring home the loss of the Holocaust.

The exhibits will explore individual moral choice, he said. “It was not one bad Hitler or one bad Stalin,” that brought mass murder to midcentury Europe, he said. “It was done by people who started to participate in this.”

The intent is to show, he said, that “any person can be in any position, and it is based on decisions you make.”

“It is about personal responsibility, but also fate,” he said.

He conceded the museum visit could become harrowing. “You cannot make it not scary,” he said. “It is a scary story.”

The project has echoes of Khrzhanovsky’s earlier work on a series of movies called DAU, which explored Soviet repression through a reality televisionlike immersing of nonprofessional actors in a Soviet-themed set in Ukraine for months at a time.

Police opened a criminal investigation into that venture after disabled orphans were brought onto the set. Khrzhanovsky said he had obtained all necessary permits.

The questions the Holocaust project raises, he said, are relevant today during the coronavirus pandemic, with themes of “suffering, death and choices of saving yourself or saving others” around policies of coronavirus response.

It is not all about death, horror and misery, the presentation notes. The design suggests visitors complete their cathartic journey at an “urban playground” for adults, as a symbol of hope. The presentation depicts adults gliding down slides and riding on swings.

Critics like none of it. One member of the planning group who quit after the new design was unveiled, Dieter Bogner, a curator, wrote, “the core exhibit dangerously approaches the impression of a Holocaust Disney.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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