How does a Holocaust-themed escape room keep victims’ memories alive?

The “Holocaust or Hope Mini Museum and Escape Room” takes on a completely different approach to Holocaust education than most would expect.

Ofer Aloni during his guided tour of the “Holocaust or Hope Mini Museum and Escape Room” in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ofer Aloni during his guided tour of the “Holocaust or Hope Mini Museum and Escape Room” in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Teaching about the Holocaust is becoming more challenging with each passing year. Survivors and their first hand testimonies are becoming rarer. As time goes by, it becomes harder to transfer to younger generations the unparalleled horrors that took place over 80 years ago and the lessons that must be learned from them. One must thus ask, is it time to reexamine our existing models of communicating the messages of the Holocaust? And what should those messages be?  
Less than a week after Israel commemorated the country’s Holocaust Remembrance Day – Yom HaShoah – I was presented with an alternate way of remembering the story of six million Jews and millions of others – through self-exploration and art. 
Located on 120 Herzl Blvd. in Jerusalem, a five-minute drive from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial site, the “Holocaust or Hope Mini Museum and Escape Room” takes on a completely different approach to Holocaust education than most would expect.
The mini museum is not a museum in the traditional sense. It is covered with colorful displays and works of art that may seem unrelated or even disconnected to the Holocaust at first but serve a role in portraying the message the museum tries to promote: hope.
It tell the story of Rachel Sarenka Zylberberg, who held a key role in rousing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, based on a letter sent by the brave rebel to her sister shortly before the uprising took place. The letter was discovered decades later by Ofer Aloni, Zylberberg’s nephew who has now decided to commemorate her memory in the form of the museum, his latest project in a life-long career of promoting hope in various constellations.      
Aloni was named after Zylberberg (Sarenka in Polish and Ofer in Hebrew both translate to young deer) which may have played a part in his preoccupation with the notion of hope. “I’m named after a woman who found hope in the darkest place in history,” he says proudly, stressing the important role women played in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and in the war in general.    
 
AND WHILE Zylberberg’s story may have inspired the museum, it is not the primary focus of the visit. Rather, Aloni takes visitors on a journey of self-examination by imposing philosophical questions about creation, knowledge and essence – encouraging them to reevaluate what they know about the Holocaust and its meaning and to fit their own story within it.   
“If you want to learn about the big things, you must start with small questions,” he says, admitting that he does not have all the answers. Instead, he asks visitors to keep an open mind and through interactive displays, to take an active role. Remaining passive during the visit is impossible, as the experience is structured as both a guided tour and open discussion with Aloni, including two questionnaires that visitors are asked to fill out when arriving and before leaving.  
“I’m a person who doesn’t like to think; I prefer doing, creating,” Aloni says, explaining the idea behind the project. "My claim is that the force of creation is in movement, not in thinking. Our mind is something that conflicts pain on us. The thing that truly develops us is movement and the heart – that is the essence of being human, not thinking."

Ofer Aloni visiting Nathan Rappaport's Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, depicting a young woman believed to be Rachel Sarenka Zylberberg (Credit: Courtesy)Ofer Aloni visiting Nathan Rappaport's Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, depicting a young woman believed to be Rachel Sarenka Zylberberg (Credit: Courtesy)
 
Aloni’s focus on learning through movement is reflected in the second part of the experience that the museum offers: a limited version of an “escape room.” Following the guided tour, visitors enter a second room that is locked behind them and are asked to search for a barcode that opens a questionnaire on their phones. Only after answering the questions and receiving a door code sent to their emails can they leave. The experience can be somewhat stressful, with loud sirens hailing in the background and smoke slowly filling the small dark space.
This untraditional and perhaps controversial approach to Holocaust education is less educational as it is emotional. While I cannot say that I left the museum with answers, it did refocus the questions I have and raised new ones, such as what is my personal responsibility in preserving the memory of the Holocaust. 
 
SIMILAR INITIATIVES around the world have attempted to take on a new approach to Holocaust education and memory in recent years. A new app developed for elementary school students in the UK allows users, through an interactive game, to step into the shoes of Leo, a young boy growing up in Berlin under Nazi rule.
In another example of how technology has been utilized to educate and preserve the memory of the Holocaust, a Reddit user recently made headlines after bringing back to life Anne Frank, one of the Holocaust's most discussed Jewish victims and well-known symbols, using an Israeli app that allows users to animate old pictures using artificial intelligence.
And while those initiatives and Aloni’s Holocaust or Hope Mini Museum and Escape Room have received generally positive feedback, others did not and were deemed offensive. 
Such was the case of an “escape room” in Greece themed around the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp that was shut down after Jews and non-Jews alike complained it was disrespectful to Holocaust victims.
Another example was a board game called Secret Hitler, which came under fire in 2019, with the Australian Jewish organization Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) urging several retailers to stop selling it, criticizing its creators for naming a game after “a brutal, evil monster, responsible for the extermination of six million Jews and millions of others.” Others, however, defended the game, dismissing any claims that it is antisemitic. 
This goes to show that there is no clear line as to what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to Holocaust education. And maybe a blurry line is a good thing, as it generates new creative ideas.  
There is no doubt that historical books, documentaries and the chilling testimonies from survivors can never be replaced with interactive Holocaust-themed “escape rooms” or creative apps for children, but perhaps they can go hand-in-hand – and maybe even serve as a gateway for teenagers who would otherwise be less keen to explore that dark and yet important stain on humanity’s shared history.