Few people alive today will have the chance to speak with a soldier who liberated Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Fortunately, a virtual version of that experience is now available to anyone visiting the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
As John Pope reports for NOLA.com, a new, interactive exhibition at the Louisiana museum enables visitors to engage in a simulated conversation with Staff Sgt. Alan Moskin, who was part of the United States Army forces that liberated the Gunskirchen camp in Austria in 1945.
“In 20, 30, 40 years from now, they’ll be able to show me, and I’ll have answers to their questions,” Moskin, now 94, tells NOLA.com.
The installation, titled “Dimensions in Testimony: Liberator Alan Moskin,” is a collaboration with the USC Shoah Foundation, which has previously created similar “interactive biographies” of Holocaust survivors. Moskin is the first American WWII veteran and first liberator of a camp to be featured.
Per the Associated Press, interviewers spoke with Moskin over five days, asking him around 1,000 questions. The virtual Moskin, shown on a large screen in the museum, will be able to answer almost any query a visitor might have.
“At the National WWII Museum we place primary importance on oral history and firsthand personal accounts of the war, on hearing directly from those who experienced the war,” says Kim Guise, the museum’s assistant director for curatorial services, in a statement. “Dimensions in Testimony allows participants to continue the conversations with Holocaust survivors and with liberators.”
Moskin was drafted and assigned to the Army’s 66th Infantry Regiment, 71st Infantry Division, at 18 years old. Serving from September 1944 to August 1946, he fought in France, Germany and Austria, rising from the rank of private to staff sergeant.
On March 4, 1945, Moskin’s unit arrived at Gunskirchen. The camp, originally intended to house several hundred enslaved laborers, was filled with 15,000 people, the majority of whom were Hungarian Jews who’d been forced to march on foot from their home country to Austria. Diseases including typhus and dysentery had spread through the overcrowded and starving population, and by the time U.S. forces arrived, SS guards had already fled the camp. Of those alive when the troops arrived, 1,500 died after liberation as a consequence of the terrible conditions.
Speaking with Time magazine’s Olivia B. Waxman in 2018, Moskin recalled what he encountered upon entering the camp: “There were dead bodies on the left, piles of dead bodies on the right—and their arms and legs looked like broomsticks covered with no flesh.”
The veteran also described how soldiers distributed food from their own rations to the starving camp survivors, saying, “Many of them would start biting and chewing so fast they started to grab their esophagus, and I remember they would start choking and falling to the crowd.”
He added, “We got so frightened. We didn’t know what was happening. And then the medics started screaming at us, ‘No solid food, damn it!’ We weren’t prepared for this.”
After Moskin returned home to the U.S., he earned a law degree through the G.I. bill and became a practicing lawyer. He didn’t speak of his wartime experiences for decades, but in 1985, he began sharing his story, speaking in front of middle and high school groups and other organizations.
Since 1994, the Shoah Foundation has collected about 52,000 interviews covering a breadth of experiences of people who lived through the Holocaust. According to the nonprofit’s website, these audio-visual testimonies were conducted in 65 countries and 43 different languages.
So far, NOLA reports, the foundation has interviewed 35 people for its “Dimensions in Testimony” interactive experiences. The installations create what feels like a real interaction through details like showing interviewees blinking and shifting in their chairs.
“One of the things we’ve found [after these sessions] is that people wanted to say, ‘Thank you,’” Stephen D. Smith, the foundation’s executive director, tells NOLA. “When you converse with these people, you feel you’ve been in that person’s presence.”
The installation, which is on view at the museum from February 4 to July 25, serves as a beta test of the interactive experience. The foundation plans to refine the exhibition based on the questions visitors ask and the answers they receive.
“Alan’s eloquence, story, and devotion to education were ideal qualities for the first American soldier in the Dimensions in Testimony initiative,” says Smith in the statement. “It’s an honor for his interactive biography to be housed at America’s National WWII Museum, where visitors learn about the courage and sacrifices made to preserve freedom and of lessons of the Holocaust so that they may never be repeated.”